Oscar, somewhat abashed, was skulking behind a clump of trees in the centre of the court-yard, and watching to see what became of his two road-companions, when Monsieur Moreau suddenly came out upon the portico from what was called the guard-room. He was dressed in a long blue overcoat which came to his heels, breeches of yellowish leather and top-boots, and in his hand he carried a riding-whip.
“Ah! my boy, so here you are? How is the dear mamma?” he said, taking Oscar by the hand. “Good-day, messieurs,” he added to Mistigris and his master, who then came forward. “You are, no doubt, the two painters whom Monsieur Grindot, the architect, told me to expect.”
He whistled twice at the end of his whip; the concierge came.
“Take these gentlemen to rooms 14 and 15. Madame Moreau will give you the keys. Go with them to show the way; make fires there, if necessary, and take up all their things. I have orders from Monsieur le comte,” he added, addressing the two young men, “to invite you to my table, messieurs; we dine at five, as in Paris. If you like hunting, you will find plenty to amuse you; I have a license from the Eaux et Forets; and we hunt over twelve thousand acres of forest, not counting our own domain.”
Oscar, the painter, and Mistigris, all more or less subdued, exchanged glances, but Mistigris, faithful to himself, remarked in a low tone, “‘Veni, vidi, cecidi — I came, I saw, I slaughtered.’”
Oscar followed the steward, who led him along at a rapid pace through the park.
“Jacques,” said Moreau to one of his children whom they met, “run in and tell your mother that little Husson has come, and say to her that I am obliged to go to Les Moulineaux for a moment.”
The steward, then about fifty years old, was a dark man of medium height, and seemed stern. His bilious complexion, to which country habits had added a certain violent coloring, conveyed, at first sight, the impression of a nature which was other than his own. His blue eyes and a large crow-beaked nose gave him an air that was the more threatening because his eyes were placed too close together. But his large lips, the outline of his face, and the easy good-humor of his manner soon showed that his nature was a kindly one. Abrupt in speech and decided in tone, he impressed Oscar immensely by the force of his penetration, inspired, no doubt, by the affection which he felt for the boy. Trained by his mother to magnify the steward, Oscar had always felt himself very small in Moreau’s presence; but on reaching Presles a new sensation came over him, as if he expected some harm from this fatherly figure, his only protector.
“Well, my Oscar, you don’t look pleased at getting here,” said the steward. “And yet you’ll find plenty of amusement; you shall learn to ride on horseback, and shoot, and hunt.”
“I don’t know any of those things,” said Oscar, stupidly.
“But I brought you here to learn them.”
“Mamma told me only to stay two weeks because of Madame Moreau.”
“Oh! we’ll see about that,” replied Moreau, rather wounded that his conjugal authority was doubted.
Moreau’s youngest son, an active, strapping lad of twelve, here ran up.
“Come,” said his father, “take Oscar to your mother.”
He himself went rapidly along the shortest path to the gamekeeper’s house, which was situated between the park and the forest.
The pavilion, or lodge, in which the count had established his steward, was built a few years before the Revolution. It stood in the centre of a large garden, one wall of which adjoined the court-yard of the stables and offices of the chateau itself. Formerly its chief entrance was on the main road to the village. But after the count’s father bought the building, he closed that entrance and united the place with his own property.
The house, built of freestone, in the style of the period of Louis XV. (it is enough to say that its exterior decoration consisted of a stone drapery beneath the windows, as in the colonnades of the Place Louis XV., the flutings of which were stiff and ungainly), had on the ground-floor a fine salon opening into a bedroom, and a dining-room connected with a billiard-room. These rooms, lying parallel to one another, were separated by a staircase, in front of which was a sort of peristyle which formed an entrance-hall, on which the two suits of rooms on either side opened. The kitchen was beneath the dining-room, for the whole building was raised ten steps from the ground level.
By placing her own bedroom on the first floor above the ground-floor, Madame Moreau was able to transform the chamber adjoining the salon into a boudoir. These two rooms were richly furnished with beautiful pieces culled from the rare old furniture of the chateau. The salon, hung with blue and white damask, formerly the curtains of the state-bed, was draped with ample portieres and window curtains lined with white silk. Pictures, evidently from old panels, plant-stands, various pretty articles of modern upholstery, handsome lamps, and a rare old cut-glass chandelier, gave a grandiose appearance to the room. The carpet was a Persian rug. The boudoir, wholly modern, and furnished entirely after Madame Moreau’s own taste, was arranged in imitation of a tent, with ropes of blue silk on a gray background. The classic divan was there, of course, with its pillows and footstools. The plant-stands, taken care of by the head-gardener of Presles, rejoiced the eye with their pyramids of bloom. The dining-room and billiard-room were furnished in mahogany.
Around the house the steward’s wife had laid out a beautiful garden, carefully cultivated, which opened into the great park. Groups of choice parks hid the offices and stables. To improve the entrance by which visitors came to see her, she had substituted a handsome iron gateway for the shabby railing, which she discarded.
The dependence in which the situation of their dwelling placed the Moreaus, was thus adroitly concealed, and they seemed all the more like rich and independent persons taking care of the property of a friend, because neither the count nor the countess ever came to Presles to take down their pretensions. Moreover, the perquisites granted by Monsieur de Serizy allowed them to live in the midst of that abundance which is the luxury of country life. Milk, eggs, poultry, game, fruits, flowers, forage, vegetables, wood, the steward and his wife used in profusion, buying absolutely nothing but butcher’s-meat, wines, and the colonial supplies required by their life of luxury. The poultry-maid baked their bread; and of late years Moreau had paid his butcher with pigs from the farm, after reserving those he needed for his own use.
On one occasion, the countess, always kind and good to her former maid, gave her, as a souvenir perhaps, a little travelling-carriage, the fashion of which was out of date. Moreau had it repainted, and now drove his wife about the country with two good horses which belonged to the farm. Besides these horses, Moreau had his own saddle-horse. He did enough farming on the count’s property to keep the horses and maintain his servants. He stacked three hundred tons of excellent hay, but accounted for only one hundred, making use of a vague permission once granted by the count. He kept his poultry-yard, pigeon-cotes, and cattle at the cost of the estate, but the manure of the stables was used by the count’s gardeners. All these little stealings had some ostensible excuse.
Madame Moreau had taken into her service a daughter of one of the gardeners, who was first her maid and afterwards her cook. The poultry-game, also the dairy-maid, assisted in the work of the household; and the steward had hired a discharged soldier to groom the horses and do the heavy labor.
At Nerville, Chaumont, Maffliers, Nointel, and other places of the neighborhood, the handsome wife of the steward was received by persons who either did not know, or pretended not to know her previous condition. Moreau did services to many persons. He induced his master to agree to certain things which seem trifles in Paris, but are really of immense importance in the country. After bringing about the appointment of a certain “juge de paix” at Beaumont and also at Isle–Adam, he had, in the same year, prevented the dismissal of a keeper-general of the Forests, and obtained the cross of the Legion of honor for the first cavalry-sergeant at Beaumont. Consequently, no festivity was ever given among the bourgeoisie to which Monsieur and Madame Moreau were not invited. The rector of Presles and the mayor of Presles came every evening to play cards with them. It is difficult for a man not to be kind and hospitable after feathering his nest so comfortably.
A pretty woman, and an affected one, as all retired waiting-maids of great ladies are, for after they are married they imitate their mistresses, Madame Moreau imported from Paris all the new fashions. She wore expensive boots, and never was seen on foot, except, occasionally, in the finest weather. Though her husband allowed but five hundred francs a year for her toilet, that sum is immense in the provinces, especially if well laid out. So that Madame Moreau, fair, rosy, and fresh, about thirty-six years of age, still slender and delicate in shape in spite of her three children, played the young girl and gave herself the airs of a princess. If, when she drove by in her caleche, some stranger had asked, “Who is she?” Madame Moreau would have been furious had she heard the reply: “The wife of the steward at Presles.” She wished to be taken for the mistress of the chateau. In the villages, she patronized the people in the tone of a great lady. The influence of her husband over the count, proved in so many years, prevented the small bourgeoisie from laughing at Madame Moreau, who, in the eyes of the peasants, was really a personage.
Estelle (her name was Estelle) took no more part in the affairs of the stewardship then the wife of a broker does in her husband’s affairs at the Bourse. She even depended on Moreau for the care of the household and their own fortune. Confident of his means, she was a thousand leagues from dreaming that this comfortable existence, which had lasted for seventeen years, could ever be endangered. And yet, when she heard of the count’s determination to restore the magnificent chateau, she felt that her enjoyments were threatened, and she urged her husband to come to the arrangement with Leger about Les Moulineaux, so that they might retire from Presles and live at Isle–Adam. She had no intention of returning to a position that was more or less that of a servant in presence of her former mistress, who, indeed, would have laughed to see her established in the lodge with all the airs and graces of a woman of the world.
The rancorous enmity which existed between the Reyberts and the Moreaus came from a wound inflicted by Madame de Reybert upon Madame Moreau on the first occasion when the latter assumed precedence over the former on her first arrival at Presles, the wife of the steward being determined not to allow her supremacy to be undermined by a woman nee de Corroy. Madame de Reybert thereupon reminded, or, perhaps, informed the whole country-side of Madame Moreau’s former station. The words “waiting-maid” flew from lip to lip. The envious acquaintances of the Moreaus throughout the neighborhood from Beaumont to Moisselles, began to carp and criticize with such eagerness that a few sparks of the conflagration fell into the Moreau household. For four years the Reyberts, cut dead by the handsome Estelle, found themselves the objects of so much animadversion on the part of the adherents of the Moreaus that their position at Presles would not have been endurable without the thought of vengeance which had, so far, supported them.
The Moreaus, who were very friendly with Grindot the architect, had received notice from him of the early arrival of the two painters sent down to finish the decorations of the chateau, the principal paintings for which were just completed by Schinner. The great painter had recommended for this work the artist who was accompanied by Mistigris. For two days past Madame Moreau had been on the tiptoe of expectation, and had put herself under arms to receive him. An artist, who was to be her guest and companion for weeks, demanded some effort. Schinner and his wife had their own apartment at the chateau, where, by the count’s express orders, they were treated with all the consideration due to himself. Grindot, who stayed at the steward’s house, showed such respect for the great artist that neither the steward nor his wife had attempted to put themselves on familiar terms with him. Moreover, the noblest and richest people in the surrounding country had vied with each other in paying attention to Schinner and his wife. So, very well pleased to have, as it were, a little revenge of her own, Madame Moreau was determined to cry up the artist she was now expecting, and to present him to her social circle as equal in talent to the great Schinner.
Though for two days past Moreau’s pretty wife had arrayed herself coquettishly, the prettiest of her toilets had been reserved for this very Saturday, when, as she felt no doubt, the artist would arrive for dinner. A pink gown in very narrow stripes, a pink belt with a richly chased gold buckle, a velvet ribbon and cross at her throat, and velvet bracelets on her bare arms (Madame de Serizy had handsome arms and showed them much), together with bronze kid shoes and thread stockings, gave Madame Moreau all the appearance of an elegant Parisian. She wore, also, a superb bonnet of Leghorn straw, trimmed with a bunch of moss roses from Nattier’s, beneath the spreading sides of which rippled the curls of her beautiful blond hair.
After ordering a very choice dinner and reviewing the condition of her rooms, she walked about the grounds, so as to be seen standing near a flower-bed in the court-yard of the chateau, like the mistress of the house, on the arrival of the coach from Paris. She held above her head a charming rose-colored parasol lined with white silk and fringed. Seeing that Pierrotin merely left Mistigris’s queer packages with the concierge, having, apparently, brought no passengers, Estelle retired disappointed and regretting the trouble of making her useless toilet. Like many persons who are dressed in their best, she felt incapable of any other occupation than that of sitting idly in her salon awaiting the coach from Beaumont, which usually passed about an hour after that of Pierrotin, though it did not leave Paris till mid-day. She was, therefore, in her own apartment when the two artists walked up to the chateau, and were sent by Moreau himself to their rooms where they made their regulation toilet for dinner. The pair had asked questions of their guide, the gardener, who told them so much of Moreau’s beauty that they felt the necessity of “rigging themselves up” (studio slang). They, therefore, put on their most superlative suits and then walked over to the steward’s lodge, piloted by Jacques Moreau, the eldest son, a hardy youth, dressed like an English boy in a handsome jacket with a turned-over collar, who was spending his vacation like a fish in water on the estate where his father and mother reigned as aristocrats.
“Mamma,” he said, “here are the two artists sent down by Monsieur Schinner.”
Madame Moreau, agreeably surprised, rose, told her son to place chairs, and began to display her graces.
“Mamma, the Husson boy is with papa,” added the lad; “shall I fetch him?”
“You need not hurry; go and play with him,” said his mother.
The remark “you need not hurry” proved to the two artists the unimportance of their late travelling companion in the eyes of their hostess; but it also showed, what they did not know, the feeling of a step-mother against a step-son. Madame Moreau, after seventeen years of married life, could not be ignorant of the steward’s attachment to Madame Clapart and the little Husson, and she hated both mother and child so vehemently that it is not surprising that Moreau had never before risked bringing Oscar to Presles.
“We are requested, my husband and myself,” she said to the two artists, “to do you the honors of the chateau. We both love art, and, above all, artists,” she added in a mincing tone; “and I beg you to make yourselves at home here. In the country, you know, every one should be at their ease; one must feel wholly at liberty, or life is too insipid. We have already had Monsieur Schinner with us.”
Mistigris gave a sly glance at his companion.
“You know him, of course?” continued Estelle, after a slight pause.
“Who does not know him, madame?” said the painter.
“Knows him like his double,” remarked Mistigris.
“Monsieur Grindot told me your name,” said Madame Moreau to the painter. “But —”
“Joseph Bridau,” he replied, wondering with what sort of woman he had to do.
Mistigris began to rebel internally against the patronizing manner of the steward’s wife; but he waited, like Bridau, for some word which might give him his cue; one of those words “de singe a dauphin” which artists, cruel, born-observers of the ridiculous — the pabulum of their pencils — seize with such avidity. Meantime Estelle’s clumsy hands and feet struck their eyes, and presently a word, or phrase or two, betrayed her past, and quite out of keeping with the elegance of her dress, made the two young fellows aware of their prey. A single glance at each other was enough to arrange a scheme that they should take Estelle seriously on her own ground, and thus find amusement enough during the time of their stay.
“You say you love art, madame; perhaps you cultivate it successfully,” said Joseph Bridau.
“No. Without being neglected, my education was purely commercial; but I have so profound and delicate a sense of art that Monsieur Schinner always asked me, when he had finished a piece of work, to give him my opinion on it.”
“Just as Moliere consulted La Foret,” said Mistigris.
Not knowing that La Foret was Moliere’s servant-woman, Madame Moreau inclined her head graciously, showing that in her ignorance she accepted the speech as a compliment.
“Didn’t he propose to ‘croquer’ you?” asked Bridau. “Painters are eager enough after handsome women.”
“What may you mean by such language?”
“In the studios we say croquer, craunch, nibble, for sketching,” interposed Mistigris, with an insinuating air, “and we are always wanting to croquer beautiful heads. That’s the origin of the expression, ‘She is pretty enough to eat.’”
“I was not aware of the origin of the term,” she replied, with the sweetest glance at Mistigris.
“My pupil here,” said Bridau, “Monsieur Leon de Lora, shows a remarkable talent for portraiture. He would be too happy, I know, to leave you a souvenir of our stay by painting your charming head, madame.”
Joseph Bridau made a sign to Mistigris which meant: “Come, sail in, and push the matter; she is not so bad in looks, this woman.”
Accepting the glance, Leon de Lora slid down upon the sofa beside Estelle and took her hand, which she permitted.
“Oh! madame, if you would like to offer a surprise to your husband, and will give me a few secret sittings I would endeavor to surpass myself. You are so beautiful, so fresh, so charming! A man without any talent might become a genius in painting you. He would draw from your eyes —”
“We must paint your dear children in the arabesques,” said Bridau, interrupting Mistigris.
“I would rather have them in the salon; but perhaps I am indiscreet in asking it,” she replied, looking at Bridau coquettishly.
“Beauty, madame, is a sovereign whom all painters worship; it has unlimited claims upon them.”
“They are both charming,” thought Madame Moreau. “Do you enjoy driving? Shall I take you through the woods, after dinner, in my carriage?”
“Oh! oh! oh!” cried Mistigris, in three ecstatic tones. “Why, Presles will prove our terrestrial paradise.”
“With an Eve, a fair, young, fascinating woman,” added Bridau.
Just as Madame Moreau was bridling, and soaring to the seventh heaven, she was recalled like a kite by a twitch at its line.
“Madame!” cried her maid-servant, bursting into the room.
“Rosalie,” said her mistress, “who allowed you to come here without being sent for?”
Rosalie paid no heed to the rebuke, but whispered in her mistress’s ear:—
“The count is at the chateau.”
“Has he asked for me?” said the steward’s wife.
“No, madame; but he wants his trunk and the key of his apartment.”
“Then give them to him,” she replied, making an impatient gesture to hide her real trouble.
“Mamma! here’s Oscar Husson,” said her youngest son, bringing in Oscar, who turned as red as a poppy on seeing the two artists in evening dress.
“Oh! so you have come, my little Oscar,” said Estelle, stiffly. “I hope you will now go and dress,” she added, after looking at him contemptuously from head to foot. “Your mother, I presume, has not accustomed you to dine in such clothes as those.”
“Oh!” cried the cruel Mistigris, “a future diplomatist knows the saying that ‘two coats are better than none.’”
“How do you mean, a future diplomatist?” exclaimed Madame Moreau.
Poor Oscar had tears in his eyes as he looked in turn from Joseph to Leon.
“Merely a joke made in travelling,” replied Joseph, who wanted to save Oscar’s feelings out of pity.
“The boy just wanted to be funny like the rest of us, and he blagued, that’s all,” said Mistigris.
“Madame,” said Rosalie, returning to the door of the salon, “his Excellency has ordered dinner for eight, and wants it served at six o’clock. What are we to do?”
During Estelle’s conference with her head-woman the two artists and Oscar looked at each other in consternation; their glances were expressive of terrible apprehension.
“His Excellency! who is he?” said Joseph Bridau.
“Why, Monsieur le Comte de Serizy, of course,” replied little Moreau.
“Could it have been the count in the coucou?” said Leon de Lora.
“Oh!” exclaimed Oscar, “the Comte de Serizy always travels in his own carriage with four horses.”
“How did the Comte de Serizy get here?” said the painter to Madame Moreau, when she returned, much discomfited, to the salon.
“I am sure I do not know,” she said. “I cannot explain to myself this sudden arrival; nor do I know what has brought him — And Moreau not here!”
“His Excellency wishes Monsieur Schinner to come over to the chateau,” said the gardener, coming to the door of the salon. “And he begs Monsieur Schinner to give him the pleasure to dine with him; also Monsieur Mistigris.”
“Done for!” cried the rapin, laughing. “He whom we took for a bourgeois in the coucou was the count. You may well say: ‘Sour are the curses of perversity.’”
Oscar was very nearly changed to a pillar of salt; for, at this revelation, his throat felt saltier than the sea.
“And you, who talked to him about his wife’s lovers and his skin diseases!” said Mistigris, turning on Oscar.
“What does he mean?” exclaimed the steward’s wife, gazing after the two artists, who went away laughing at the expression of Oscar’s face.
Oscar remained dumb, confounded, stupefied, hearing nothing, though Madame Moreau questioned him and shook him violently by his arm, which she caught and squeezed. She gained nothing, however, and was forced to leave him in the salon without an answer, for Rosalie appeared again, to ask for linen and silver, and to beg she would go herself and see that the multiplied orders of the count were executed. All the household, together with the gardeners and the concierge and his wife, were going and coming in a confusion that may readily be imagined. The master had fallen upon his own house like a bombshell.
From the top of the hill near La Cave, where he left the coach, the count had gone, by the path through the woods well-known to him, to the house of his gamekeeper. The keeper was amazed when he saw his real master.
“Is Moreau here?” said the count. “I see his horse.”
“No, monseigneur; he means to go to Moulineaux before dinner, and he has left his horse here while he went to the chateau to give a few orders.”
“If you value your place,” said the count, “you will take that horse and ride at once to Beaumont, where you will deliver to Monsieur Margueron the note that I shall now write.”
So saying the count entered the keeper’s lodge and wrote a line, folding it in a way impossible to open without detection, and gave it to the man as soon as he saw him in the saddle.
“Not a word to any one,” he said, “and as for you, madame,” he added to the gamekeeper’s wife, “if Moreau comes back for his horse, tell him merely that I have taken it.”
The count then crossed the park and entered the court-yard of the chateau through the iron gates. However worn-out a man may be by the wear and tear of public life, by his own emotions, by his own mistakes and disappointments, the soul of any man able to love deeply at the count’s age is still young and sensitive to treachery. Monsieur de Serizy had felt such pain at the thought that Moreau had deceived him, that even after hearing the conversation at Saint–Brice he thought him less an accomplice of Leger and the notary than their tool. On the threshold of the inn, and while that conversation was still going on, he thought of pardoning his steward after giving him a good reproof. Strange to say, the dishonesty of his confidential agent occupied his mind as a mere episode from the moment when Oscar revealed his infirmities. Secrets so carefully guarded could only have been revealed by Moreau, who had, no doubt, laughed over the hidden troubles of his benefactor with either Madame de Serizy’s former maid or with the Aspasia of the Directory.
As he walked along the wood-path, this peer of France, this statesman, wept as young men weep; he wept his last tears. All human feelings were so cruelly hurt by one stroke that the usually calm man staggered through his park like a wounded deer.
When Moreau arrived at the gamekeeper’s lodge and asked for his horse, the keeper’s wife replied:—
“Monsieur le comte has just taken it.”
“Monsieur le comte!” cried Moreau. “Whom do you mean?”
“Why, the Comte de Serizy, our master,” she replied. “He is probably at the chateau by this time,” she added, anxious to be rid of the steward, who, unable to understand the meaning of her words, turned back towards the chateau.
But he presently turned again and came back to the lodge, intending to question the woman more closely; for he began to see something serious in this secret arrival, and the apparently strange method of his master’s return. But the wife of the gamekeeper, alarmed to find herself caught in a vise between the count and his steward, had locked herself into the house, resolved not to open to any but her husband. Moreau, more and more uneasy, ran rapidly, in spite of his boots and spurs, to the chateau, where he was told that the count was dressing.
“Seven persons invited to dinner!” cried Rosalie as soon as she saw him.
Moreau then went through the offices to his own house. On his way he met the poultry-girl, who was having an altercation with a handsome young man.
“Monsieur le comte particularly told me a colonel, an aide-decamp of Mina,” insisted the girl.
“I am not a colonel,” replied Georges.
“But isn’t your name Georges?”
“What’s all this?” said the steward, intervening.
“Monsieur, my name is Georges Marest; I am the son of a rich wholesale ironmonger in the rue Saint–Martin; I come on business to Monsieur le Comte de Serizy from Maitre Crottat, a notary, whose second clerk I am.”
“And I,” said the girl, “am telling him that monseigneur said to me: ‘There’ll come a colonel named Czerni–Georges, aide-decamp to Mina; he’ll come by Pierrotin’s coach; if he asks for me show him into the waiting-room.’”
“Evidently,” said the clerk, “the count is a traveller who came down with us in Pierrotin’s coucou; if it hadn’t been for the politeness of a young man he’d have come as a rabbit.”
“A rabbit! in Pierrotin’s coucou!” exclaimed Moreau and the poultry-girl together.
“I am sure of it, from what this girl is now saying,” said Georges.
“How so?” asked the steward.
“Ah! that’s the point,” cried the clerk. “To hoax the travellers and have a bit of fun I told them a lot of stuff about Egypt and Greece and Spain. As I happened to be wearing spurs I have myself out for a colonel of cavalry: pure nonsense!”
“Tell me,” said Moreau, “what did this traveller you take to be Monsieur le comte look like?”
“Face like a brick,” said Georges, “hair snow-white, and black eyebrows.”
“That is he!”
“Then I’m lost!” exclaimed Georges.
“Oh, I chaffed him about his decorations.”
“Pooh! he’s a good fellow; you probably amused him. Come at once to the chateau. I’ll go in and see his Excellency. Where did you say he left the coach?”
“At the top of the mountain.”
“I don’t know what to make of it!”
“After all,” thought Georges, “though I did blague him, I didn’t say anything insulting.”
“Why have you come here?” asked the steward.
“I have brought the deed of sale for the farm at Moulineaux, all ready for signature.”
“Good heavens!” exclaimed the steward, “I don’t understand one word of all this!”
Moreau felt his heart beat painfully when, after giving two raps on his master’s door, he heard the words:—
“Is that you, Monsieur Moreau?”
The count was now wearing a pair of white trousers and thin boots, a white waistcoat and a black coat on which shone the grand cross of the Legion upon the right breast, and fastened to a buttonhole on the left was the order of the Golden Fleece hanging by a short gold chain. He had arranged his hair himself, and had, no doubt, put himself in full dress to do the honors of Presles to Monsieur Margueron; and, possibly, to impress the good man’s mind with a prestige of grandeur.
“Well, monsieur,” said the count, who remained seated, leaving Moreau to stand before him. “We have not concluded that purchase from Margueron.”
“He asks too much for the farm at the present moment.”
“But why is he not coming to dinner as I requested?”
“Monseigneur, he is ill.”
“Are you sure?”
“I have just come from there.”
“Monsieur,” said the count, with a stern air which was really terrible, “what would you do with a man whom you trusted, if, after seeing you dress wounds which you desired to keep secret from all the world, he should reveal your misfortunes and laugh at your malady with a strumpet?”
“I would thrash him for it.”
“And if you discovered that he was also betraying your confidence and robbing you?”
“I should endeavor to detect him, and send him to the galleys.”
“Monsieur Moreau, listen to me. You have undoubtedly spoken of my infirmities to Madame Clapart; you have laughed at her house, and with her, over my attachment to the Comtesse de Serizy; for her son, little Husson, told a number of circumstances relating to my medical treatment, to travellers by a public conveyance in my presence, and Heaven knows in what language! He dared to calumniate my wife. Besides this, I learned from the lips of Pere Leger himself, who was in the coach, of the plan laid by the notary at Beaumont and by you and by himself in relation to Les Moulineaux. If you have been, as you say, to Monsieur Margueron, it was to tell him to feign illness. He is so little ill that he is coming here to dinner this evening. Now, monsieur, I could pardon you having made two hundred and fifty thousand francs out of your situation in seventeen years — I can understand that. You might each time have asked me for what you took, and I would have given it to you; but let that pass. You have been, notwithstanding this disloyalty, better than others, as I believe. But that you, who knew my toil for our country, for France, you have seen me giving night after night to the Emperor’s service, and working eighteen hours of each twenty-four for months together, you who knew my love for Madame de Serizy — that you should have gossiped about me before a boy! holding up my secrets and my affections to the ridicule of a Madame Husson! —”
“It is unpardonable. To injure a man’s interest, why, that is nothing; but to stab his heart! — Oh! you do not know what you have done!”
The count put his head in his hands and was silent for some moments.
“I leave you what you have gained,” he said after a time, “and I shall forget you. For my sake, for my dignity, and for your honor, we will part decently; for I cannot but remember even now what your father did for mine. You will explain the duties of the stewardship in a proper manner to Monsieur de Reybert, who succeeds you. Be calm, as I am. Give no opportunity for fools to talk. Above all, let there be no recrimination or petty meanness. Though you no longer possess my confidence, endeavor to behave with the decorum of well-bred persons. As for that miserable boy who has wounded me to death, I will not have him sleep at Presles; send him to the inn; I will not answer for my own temper if I see him.”
“I do not deserve such gentleness, monseigneur,” said Moreau, with tears in his eyes. “Yes, you are right; if I had been utterly dishonest I should now be worth five hundred thousand francs instead of half that sum. I offer to give you an account of my fortune, with all its details. But let me tell you, monseigneur, that in talking of you with Madame Clapart, it was never in derision; but, on the contrary, to deplore your state, and to ask her for certain remedies, not used by physicians, but known to the common people. I spoke of your feelings before the boy, who was in his bed and, as I supposed, asleep (it seems he must have been awake and listening to us), with the utmost affection and respect. Alas! fate wills that indiscretions be punished like crimes. But while accepting the results of your just anger, I wish you to know what actually took place. It was, indeed, from heart to heart that I spoke of you to Madame Clapart. As for my wife, I have never said one word of these things —”
“Enough,” said the count, whose conviction was now complete; “we are not children. All is now irrevocable. Put your affairs and mine in order. You can stay in the pavilion until October. Monsieur and Madame de Reybert will lodge for the present in the chateau; endeavor to keep on terms with them, like well-bred persons who hate each other, but still keep up appearances.”
The count and Moreau went downstairs; Moreau white as the count’s hair, the count himself calm and dignified.
During the time this interview lasted the Beaumont coach, which left Paris at one o’clock, had stopped before the gates of the chateau, and deposited Maitre Crottat, the notary, who was shown, according to the count’s orders, into the salon, where he found his clerk, extremely subdued in manner, and the two painters, all three of them painfully self-conscious and embarrassed. Monsieur de Reybert, a man of fifty, with a crabbed expression of face, was also there, accompanied by old Margueron and the notary of Beaumont, who held in his hand a bundle of deeds and other papers.
When these various personages saw the count in evening dress, and wearing his orders, Georges Marest had a slight sensation of colic, Joseph Bridau quivered, but Mistigris, who was conscious of being in his Sunday clothes, and had, moreover, nothing on his conscience, remarked, in a sufficiently loud tone:—
“Well, he looks a great deal better like that.”
“Little scamp,” said the count, catching him by the ear, “we are both in the decoration business. I hope you recognize your own work, my dear Schinner,” he added, pointing to the ceiling of the salon.
“Monseigneur,” replied the artist, “I did wrong to take such a celebrated name out of mere bravado; but this day will oblige me to do fine things for you, and so bring credit on my own name of Joseph Bridau.”
“You took up my defence,” said the count, hastily; “and I hope you will give me the pleasure of dining with me, as well as my lively friend Mistigris.”
“Your Excellency doesn’t know to what you expose yourself,” said the saucy rapin; “‘facilis descensus victuali,’ as we say at the Black Hen.”
“Bridau!” exclaimed the minister, struck by a sudden thought. “Are you any relation to one of the most devoted toilers under the Empire, the head of a bureau, who fell a victim to his zeal?”
“His son, monseigneur,” replied Joseph, bowing.
“Then you are most welcome here,” said the count, taking Bridau’s hand in both of his. “I knew your father, and you can count on me as on — on an uncle in America,” added the count, laughing. “But you are too young to have pupils of your own; to whom does Mistigris really belong?”
“To my friend Schinner, who lent him to me,” said Joseph. “Mistigris’ name is Leon de Lora. Monseigneur, if you knew my father, will you deign to think of his other son, who is now accused of plotting against the State, and is soon to be tried before the Court of Peers?”
“Ah! that’s true,” said the count. “Yes, I will think about it, be sure of that. As for Colonel Czerni–Georges, the friend of Ali Pacha, and Mina’s aide-decamp —” he continued, walking up to Georges.
“He! why that’s my second clerk!” cried Crottat.
“You are quite mistaken, Maitre Crottat,” said the count, assuming a stern air. “A clerk who intends to be a notary does not leave important deeds in a diligence at the mercy of other travellers; neither does he spend twenty francs between Paris and Moisselles; or expose himself to be arrested as a deserter —”
“Monseigneur,” said Georges Marest, “I may have amused myself with the bourgeois in the diligence, but —”
“Let his Excellency finish what he was saying,” said the notary, digging his elbow into his clerk’s ribs.
“A notary,” continued the count, “ought to practise discretion, shrewdness, caution from the start; he should be incapable of such a blunder as taking a peer of France for a tallow-chandler —”
“I am willing to be blamed for my faults,” said Georges; “but I never left my deeds at the mercy of —”
“Now you are committing the fault of contradicting the word of a minister of State, a gentleman, an old man, and a client,” said the count. “Give me that deed of sale.”
Georges turned over and over the papers in his portfolio.
“That will do; don’t disarrange those papers,” said the count, taking the deed from his pocket. “Here is what you are looking for.”
Crottat turned the paper back and forth, so astonished was he at receiving it from the hands of his client.
“What does this mean, monsieur?” he said, finally, to Georges.
“If I had not taken it,” said the count, “Pere Leger — who is by no means such a ninny as you thought him from his questions about agriculture, by which he showed that he attended to his own business, — Pere Leger might have seized that paper and guessed my purpose. You must give me the pleasure of dining with me, but one on condition, — that of describing, as you promised, the execution of the Muslim of Smyrna, and you must also finish the memoirs of some client which you have certainly read to be so well informed.”
“Schlague for blague!” said Leon de Lora, in a whisper, to Joseph Bridau.
“Gentlemen,” said the count to the two notaries and Messieurs Margueron and de Reybert, “let us go into the next room and conclude this business before dinner, because, as my friend Mistigris would say: ‘Qui esurit constentit.’”
“Well, he is very good-natured,” said Leon de Lora to Georges Marest, when the count had left the room.
“Yes, HE may be, but my master isn’t,” said Georges, “and he will request me to go and blaguer somewhere else.”
“Never mind, you like travel,” said Bridau.
“What a dressing that boy will get from Monsieur and Madame Moreau!” cried Mistigris.
“Little idiot!” said Georges. “If it hadn’t been for him the count would have been amused. Well, anyhow, the lesson is a good one; and if ever again I am caught bragging in a public coach —”
“It is a stupid thing to do,” said Joseph Bridau.
“And common,” added Mistigris. “‘Vulgarity is the brother of pretension.’”
While the matter of the sale was being settled between Monsieur Margueron and the Comte de Serizy, assisted by their respective notaries in presence of Monsieur de Reybert, the ex-steward walked with slow steps to his own house. There he entered the salon and sat down without noticing anything. Little Husson, who was present, slipped into a corner, out of sight, so much did the livid face of his mother’s friend alarm him.
“Eh! my friend!” said Estelle, coming into the room, somewhat tired with what she had been doing. “What is the matter?”
“My dear, we are lost — lost beyond recovery. I am no longer steward of Presles, no longer in the count’s confidence.”
“Pere Leger, who was in Pierrotin’s coach, told the count all about the affair of Les Moulineaux. But that is not the thing that has cost me his favor.”
“Oscar spoke ill of the countess, and he told about the count’s diseases.”
“Oscar!” cried Madame Moreau. “Ah! my dear, your sin has found you out. It was well worth while to warm that young serpent in your bosom. How often I have told you —”
“Enough!” said Moreau, in a strained voice.
At this moment Estelle and her husband discovered Oscar cowering in his corner. Moreau swooped down on the luckless lad like a hawk on its prey, took him by the collar of the coat and dragged him to the light of a window. “Speak! what did you say to monseigneur in that coach? What demon let loose your tongue, you who keep a doltish silence whenever I speak to you? What did you do it for?” cried the steward, with frightful violence.
Too bewildered to weep, Oscar was dumb and motionless as a statue.
“Come with me and beg his Excellency’s pardon,” said Moreau.
“As if his Excellency cares for a little toad like that!” cried the furious Estelle.
“Come, I say, to the chateau,” repeated Moreau.
Oscar dropped like an inert mass to the ground.
“Come!” cried Moreau, his anger increasing at every instant.
“No! no! mercy!” cried Oscar, who could not bring himself to submit to a torture that seemed to him worse than death.
Moreau then took the lad by his coat, and dragged him, as he might a dead body, through the yards, which rang with the boy’s outcries and sobs. He pulled him up the portico, and, with an arm that fury made powerful, he flung him, bellowing, and rigid as a pole, into the salon, at the very feet of the count, who, having completed the purchase of Les Moulineaux, was about to leave the salon for the dining-room with his guests.
“On your knees, wretched boy! and ask pardon of him who gave food to your mind by obtaining your scholarship.”
Oscar, his face to the ground, was foaming with rage, and did not say a word. The spectators of the scene were shocked. Moreau seemed no longer in his senses; his face was crimson with injected blood.
“This young man is a mere lump of vanity,” said the count, after waiting a moment for Oscar’s excuses. “A proud man humiliates himself because he sees there is grandeur in a certain self-abasement. I am afraid that you will never make much of that lad.”
So saying, his Excellency passed on. Moreau took Oscar home with him; and on the way gave orders that the horses should immediately be put to Madame Moreau’s caleche.
Last updated Wednesday, July 15, 2015 at 16:28