One of Napoleon’s orderly staff-officers, who shall be known in this history only as the General or the Marquis, had come to spend the spring at Versailles. He made a large fortune under the Restoration; and as his place at Court would not allow him to go very far from Paris, he had taken a country house between the church and the barrier of Montreuil, on the road that leads to the Avenue de Saint–Cloud.
The house had been built originally as a retreat for the short-lived loves of some grand seigneur. The grounds were very large; the gardens on either side extending from the first houses of Montreuil to the thatched cottages near the barrier, so that the owner could enjoy all the pleasures of solitude with the city almost at his gates. By an odd piece of contradiction, the whole front of the house itself, with the principal entrance, gave directly upon the street. Perhaps in time past it was a tolerably lonely road, and indeed this theory looks all the more probable when one comes to think of it; for not so very far away, on this same road, Louis Quinze built a delicious summer villa for Mlle. de Romans, and the curious in such things will discover that the wayside casinos are adorned in a style that recalls traditions of the ingenious taste displayed in debauchery by our ancestors who, with all the license paid to their charge, sought to invest it with secrecy and mystery.
One winter evening the family were by themselves in the lonely house. The servants had received permission to go to Versailles to celebrate the wedding of one of their number. It was Christmas time, and the holiday makers, presuming upon the double festival, did not scruple to outstay their leave of absence; yet, as the General was well known to be a man of his word, the culprits felt some twinges of conscience as they danced on after the hour of return. The clocks struck eleven, and still there was no sign of the servants.
A deep silence prevailed over the country-side, broken only by the sound of the northeast wind whistling through the black branches, wailing about the house, dying in gusts along the corridors. The hard frost had purified the air, and held the earth in its grip; the roads gave back every sound with the hard metallic ring which always strikes us with a new surprise; the heavy footsteps of some belated reveler, or a cab returning to Paris, could be heard for a long distance with unwonted distinctness. Out in the courtyard a few dead leaves set a-dancing by some eddying gust found a voice for the night which fain had been silent. It was, in fact, one of those sharp, frosty evenings that wring barren expressions of pity from our selfish ease for wayfarers and the poor, and fills us with a luxurious sense of the comfort of the fireside.
But the family party in the salon at that hour gave not a thought to absent servants nor houseless folk, nor to the gracious charm with which a winter evening sparkles. No one played the philosopher out of season. Secure in the protection of an old soldier, women and children gave themselves up to the joys of home life, so delicious when there is no restraint upon feeling; and talk and play and glances are bright with frankness and affection.
The General sat, or more properly speaking, lay buried, in the depths of a huge, high-back armchair by the hearth. The heaped-up fire burned scorching clear with the excessive cold of the night. The good father leaned his head slightly to one side against the back of the chair, in the indolence of perfect serenity and a glow of happiness. The languid, half-sleepy droop of his outstretched arms seemed to complete his expression of placid content. He was watching his youngest, a boy of five or thereabouts, who, half clad as he was, declined to allow his mother to undress him. The little one fled from the night-gown and cap with which he was threatened now and again, and stoutly declined to part with his embroidered collar, laughing when his mother called to him, for he saw that she too was laughing at this declaration of infant independence. The next step was to go back to a game of romps with his sister. She was as much a child as he, but more mischievous; and she was older by two years, and could speak distinctly already, whereas his inarticulate words and confused ideas were a puzzle even to his parents. Little Moina’s playfulness, somewhat coquettish already, provoked inextinguishable laughter, explosions of merriment which went off like fireworks for no apparent cause. As they tumbled about before the fire, unconcernedly displaying little plump bodies and delicate white contours, as the dark and golden curls mingled in a collision of rosy cheeks dimpled with childish glee, a father surely, a mother most certainly, must have understood those little souls, and seen the character and power of passion already developed for their eyes. As the cherubs frolicked about, struggling, rolling, and tumbling without fear of hurt on the soft carpet, its flowers looked pale beside the glowing white and red of their cheeks and the brilliant color of their shining eyes.
On the sofa by the fire, opposite the great armchair, the children’s mother sat among a heap of scattered garments, with a little scarlet shoe in her hand. She seemed to have given herself up completely to the enjoyment of the moment; wavering discipline had relaxed into a sweet smile engraved upon her lips. At the age of six-and-thirty, or thereabouts, she was a beautiful woman still, by reason of the rare perfection of the outlines of her face, and at this moment light and warmth and happiness filled it with preternatural brightness.
Again and again her eyes wandered from her children, and their tender gaze was turned upon her husband’s grave face; and now and again the eyes of husband and wife met with a silent exchange of happiness and thoughts from some inner depth.
The General’s face was deeply bronzed, a stray lock of gray hair scored shadows on his forehead. The reckless courage of the battlefield could be read in the lines carved in his hollow cheeks, and gleams of rugged strength in the blue eyes; clearly the bit of red ribbon flaunting at his button-hole had been paid for by hardship and toil. An inexpressible kindliness and frankness shone out of the strong, resolute face which reflected his children’s merriment; the gray-haired captain found it not so very hard to become a child again. Is there not always a little love of children in the heart of a soldier who has seen enough of the seamy side of life to know something of the piteous limitations of strength and the privileges of weakness?
At a round table rather further away, in a circle of bright lamplight that dimmed the feebler illumination of the wax candles on the chimney-piece, sat a boy of thirteen, rapidly turning the pages of a thick volume which he was reading, undisturbed by the shouts of the children. There was a boy’s curiosity in his face. From his lyceens uniform he was evidently a schoolboy, and the book he was reading was the Arabian Nights. Small wonder that he was deeply absorbed. He sat perfectly still in a meditative attitude, with his elbow on the table, and his hand propping his head — the white fingers contrasting strongly with the brown hair into which they were thrust. As he sat, with the light turned full upon his face, and the rest of his body in shadow, he looked like one of Raphael’s dark portraits of himself — a bent head and intent eyes filled with visions of the future.
Between the table and the Marquise a tall, beautiful girl sat at her tapestry frame; sometimes she drew back from her work, sometimes she bent over it, and her hair, picturesque in its ebony smoothness and darkness, caught the light of the lamp. Helene was a picture in herself. In her beauty there was a rare distinctive character of power and refinement. Though her hair was gathered up and drawn back from her face, so as to trace a clearly marked line about her head, so thick and abundant was it, so recalcitrant to the comb, that it sprang back in curl-tendrils to the nape of her neck. The bountiful line of eyebrows was evenly marked out in dark contrasting outline upon her pure forehead. On her upper lip, beneath the Grecian nose with its sensitively perfect curve of nostril, there lay a faint, swarthy shadow, the sign-manual of courage; but the enchanting roundness of contour, the frankly innocent expression of her other features, the transparence of the delicate carnations, the voluptuous softness of the lips, the flawless oval of the outline of the face, and with these, and more than all these, the saintlike expression in the girlish eyes, gave to her vigorous loveliness the distinctive touch of feminine grace, that enchanting modesty which we look for in these angels of peace and love. Yet there was no suggestion of fragility about her; and, surely, with so grand a woman’s frame, so attractive a face, she must possess a corresponding warmth of heart and strength of soul.
She was as silent as her schoolboy brother. Seemingly a prey to the fateful maiden meditations which baffle a father’s penetration and even a mother’s sagacity, it was impossible to be certain whether it was the lamplight that cast those shadows that flitted over her face like thin clouds over a bright sky, or whether they were passing shades of secret and painful thoughts.
Husband and wife had quite forgotten the two older children at that moment, though now and again the General’s questioning glance traveled to that second mute picture; a larger growth, a gracious realization, as it were, of the hopes embodied in the baby forms rioting in the foreground. Their faces made up a kind of living poem, illustrating life’s various phases. The luxurious background of the salon, the different attitudes, the strong contrasts of coloring in the faces, differing with the character of differing ages, the modeling of the forms brought into high relief by the light — altogether it was a page of human life, richly illuminated beyond the art of painter, sculptor, or poet. Silence, solitude, night and winter lent a final touch of majesty to complete the simplicity and sublimity of this exquisite effect of nature’s contriving. Married life is full of these sacred hours, which perhaps owe their indefinable charm to some vague memory of a better world. A divine radiance surely shines upon them, the destined compensation for some portion of earth’s sorrows, the solace which enables man to accept life. We seem to behold a vision of an enchanted universe, the great conception of its system widens out before our eyes, and social life pleads for its laws by bidding us look to the future.
Yet in spite of the tender glances that Helene gave Abel and Moina after a fresh outburst of merriment; in spite of the look of gladness in her transparent face whenever she stole a glance at her father, a deep melancholy pervaded her gestures, her attitude, and more than all, her eyes veiled by their long lashes. Those white, strong hands, through which the light passed, tinting them with a diaphanous, almost fluid red — those hands were trembling. Once only did the eyes of the mother and daughter clash without shrinking, and the two women read each other’s thoughts in a look, cold, wan, and respectful on Helene’s part, sombre and threatening on her mother’s. At once Helene’s eyes were lowered to her work, she plied her needle swiftly, and it was long before she raised her head, bowed as it seemed by a weight of thought too heavy to bear. Was the Marquise over harsh with this one of her children? Did she think this harshness needful? Was she jealous of Helene’s beauty? — She might still hope to rival Helene, but only by the magic arts of the toilette. Or again, had her daughter, like many a girl who reaches the clairvoyant age, read the secrets which this wife (to all appearance so religiously faithful in the fulfilment of her duties) believed to be buried in her own heart as deeply as in a grave?
Helene had reached an age when purity of soul inclines to pass over-rigid judgments. A certain order of mind is apt to exaggerate transgression into crime; imagination reacts upon conscience, and a young girl is a hard judge because she magnifies the seriousness of the offence. Helene seemed to think herself worthy of no one. Perhaps there was a secret in her past life, perhaps something had happened, unintelligible to her at the time, but with gradually developing significance for a mind grown susceptible to religious influences; something which lately seemed to have degraded her, as it were, in her own eyes, and according to her own romantic standard. This change in her demeanor dated from the day of reading Schiller’s noble tragedy of Wilhelm Tell in a new series of translations. Her mother scolded her for letting the book fall, and then remarked to herself that the passage which had so worked on Helene’s feelings was the scene in which Wilhelm Tell, who spilt the blood of a tyrant to save a nation, fraternizes in some sort with John the Parricide. Helene had grown humble, dutiful, and self-contained; she no longer cared for gaiety. Never had she made so much of her father, especially when the Marquise was not by to watch her girlish caresses. And yet, if Helene’s affection for her mother had cooled at all, the change in her manner was so slight as to be almost imperceptible; so slight that the General could not have noticed it, jealous though he might be of the harmony of home. No masculine insight could have sounded the depths of those two feminine natures; the one was young and generous, the other sensitive and proud; the first had a wealth of indulgence in her nature, the second was full of craft and love. If the Marquise made her daughter’s life a burden to her by a woman’s subtle tyranny, it was a tyranny invisible to all but the victim; and for the rest, these conjectures only called forth after the event must remain conjectures. Until this night no accusing flash of light had escaped either of them, but an ominous mystery was too surely growing up between them, a mystery known only to themselves and God.
“Come, Abel,” called the Marquise, seizing on her opportunity when the children were tired of play and still for a moment. “Come, come, child; you must be put to bed —”
And with a glance that must be obeyed, she caught him up and took him on her knee.
“What!” exclaimed the General. “Half-past ten o’clock, and not one of the servants has come back! The rascals! — Gustave,” he added, turning to his son, “I allowed you to read that book only on the condition that you should put it away at ten o’clock. You ought to have shut up the book at the proper time and gone to bed, as you promised. If you mean to make your mark in the world, you must keep your word; let it be a second religion to you, and a point of honor. Fox, one of the greatest English orators, was remarkable, above all things, for the beauty of his character, and the very first of his qualities was the scrupulous faithfulness with which he kept his engagements. When he was a child, his father (an Englishman of the old school) gave him a pretty strong lesson which he never forgot. Like most rich Englishmen, Fox’s father had a country house and a considerable park about it. Now, in the park there was an old summer-house, and orders had been given that this summer-house was to be pulled down and put up somewhere else where there was a finer view. Fox was just about your age, and had come home for the holidays. Boys are fond of seeing things pulled to pieces, so young Fox asked to stay on at home for a few days longer to see the old summer-house taken down; but his father said that he must go back to school on the proper day, so there was anger between father and son. Fox’s mother (like all mammas) took the boy’s part. Then the father solemnly promised that the summer-house should stay where it was till the next holidays.
“So Fox went back to school; and his father, thinking that lessons would soon drive the whole thing out of the boy’s mind, had the summer-house pulled down and put up in the new position. But as it happened, the persistent youngster thought of nothing but that summer-house; and as soon as he came home again, his first care was to go out to look at the old building, and he came in to breakfast looking quite doleful, and said to his father, ‘You have broken your promise.’ The old English gentleman said with confusion full of dignity, ‘That is true, my boy; but I will make amends. A man ought to think of keeping his word before he thinks of his fortune; for by keeping his word he will gain fortune, while all the fortunes in the world will not efface the stain left on your conscience by a breach of faith.’ Then he gave orders that the summer-house should be put up again in the old place, and when it had been rebuilt he had it taken down again for his son to see. Let this be a lesson to you, Gustave.”
Gustave had been listening with interest, and now he closed the book at once. There was a moment’s silence, while the General took possession of Moina, who could scarcely keep her eyes open. The little one’s languid head fell back on her father’s breast, and in a moment she was fast asleep, wrapped round about in her golden curls.
Just then a sound of hurrying footsteps rang on the pavement out in the street, immediately followed by three knocks on the street door, waking the echoes of the house. The reverberating blows told, as plainly as a cry for help that here was a man flying for his life. The house dog barked furiously. A thrill of excitement ran through Helene and Gustave and the General and his wife; but neither Abel, with the night-cap strings just tied under his chin, nor Moina awoke.
“The fellow is in a hurry!” exclaimed the General. He put the little girl down on the chair, and hastened out of the room, heedless of his wife’s entreating cry, “Dear, do not go down —”
He stepped into his own room for a pair of pistols, lighted a dark lantern, sprang at lightning speed down the staircase, and in another minute reached the house door, his oldest boy fearlessly following.
“Who is there?” demanded he.
“Let me in,” panted a breathless voice.
“Are you a friend?”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes! But let me in; they are after me!”
The General had scarcely set the door ajar before a man slipped into the porch with the uncanny swiftness of a shadow. Before the master of the house could prevent him, the intruder had closed the door with a well-directed kick, and set his back against it resolutely, as if he were determined that it should not be opened again. In a moment the General had his lantern and pistol at a level with the stranger’s breast, and beheld a man of medium height in a fur-lined pelisse. It was an old man’s garment, both too large and too long for its present wearer. Chance or caution had slouched the man’s hat over his eyes.
“You can lower your pistol, sir,” said this person. “I do not claim to stay in your house against your will; but if I leave it, death is waiting for me at the barrier. And what a death! You would be answerable to God for it! I ask for your hospitality for two hours. And bear this in mind, sir, that, suppliant as I am, I have a right to command with the despotism of necessity. I want the Arab’s hospitality. Either I and my secret must be inviolable, or open the door and I will go to my death. I want secrecy, a safe hiding-place, and water. Oh! water!” he cried again, with a rattle in his throat.
“Who are you?” demanded the General, taken aback by the stranger’s feverish volubility.
“Ah! who am I? Good, open the door, and I will put a distance between us,” retorted the other, and there was a diabolical irony in his tone.
Dexterously as the Marquis passed the light of the lantern over the man’s face, he could only see the lower half of it, and that in nowise prepossessed him in favor of this singular claimant of hospitality. The cheeks were livid and quivering, the features dreadfully contorted. Under the shadow of the hat-brim a pair of eyes gleamed out like flames; the feeble candle-light looked almost dim in comparison. Some sort of answer must be made however.
“Your language, sir, is so extraordinary that in my place you yourself —”
“My life is in your hands!” the intruder broke in. The sound of his voice was dreadful to hear.
“Two hours?” said the Marquis, wavering.
“Two hours,” echoed the other.
Then quite suddenly, with a desperate gesture, he pushed back his hat and left his forehead bare, and, as if he meant to try a final expedient, he gave the General a glance that seemed to plunge like a vivid flash into his very soul. That electrical discharge of intelligence and will was swift as lightning and crushing as a thunderbolt; for there are moments when a human being is invested for a brief space with inexplicable power.
“Come, whoever you may be, you shall be in safety under my roof,” the master of the house said gravely at last, acting, as he imagined, upon one of those intuitions which a man cannot always explain to himself.
“God will repay you!” said the stranger, with a deep, involuntary sigh.
“Have you weapons?” asked the General.
For all answer the stranger flung open his fur pelisse, and scarcely gave the other time for a glance before he wrapped it about him again. To all appearance he was unarmed and in evening dress. Swift as the soldier’s scrutiny had been, he saw something, however, which made him exclaim:
“Where the devil have you been to get yourself in such a mess in such dry weather?”
“More questions!” said the stranger haughtily.
At the words the Marquis caught sight of his son, and his own late homily on the strict fulfilment of a given word came up to his mind. In lively vexation, he exclaimed, not without a touch of anger:
“What! little rogue, you here when you ought to be in bed?”
“Because I thought I might be of some good in danger,” answered Gustave.
“There, go up to your room,” said his father, mollified by the reply. —“And you” (addressing the stranger), “come with me.”
The two men grew as silent as a pair of gamblers who watch each other’s play with mutual suspicions. The General himself began to be troubled with ugly presentiments. The strange visit weighed upon his mind already like a nightmare; but he had passed his word, there was no help for it now, and he led the way along the passages and stairways till they reached a large room on the second floor immediately above the salon. This was an empty room where linen was dried in the winter. It had but the one door, and for all decoration boasted one solitary shabby looking-glass above the chimney-piece, left by the previous owner, and a great pier glass, placed provisionally opposite the fireplace until such time as a use should be found for it in the rooms below. The four yellowish walls were bare. The floor had never been swept. The huge attic was icy-cold, and the furniture consisted of a couple of rickety straw-bottomed chairs, or rather frames of chairs. The General set the lantern down upon the chimney-piece. Then he spoke:
“It is necessary for your own safety to hide you in this comfortless attic. And, as you have my promise to keep your secret, you will permit me to lock you in.”
The other bent his head in acquiescence.
“I asked for nothing but a hiding-place, secrecy, and water,” returned he.
“I will bring you some directly,” said the Marquis, shutting the door cautiously. He groped his way down into the salon for a lamp before going to the kitchen to look for a carafe.
“Well, what is it?” the Marquise asked quickly.
“Nothing, dear,” he returned coolly.
“But we listened, and we certainly heard you go upstairs with somebody.”
“Helene,” said the General, and he looked at his daughter, who raised her face, “bear in mind that your father’s honor depends upon your discretion. You must have heard nothing.”
The girl bent her head in answer. The Marquise was confused and smarting inwardly at the way in which her husband had thought fit to silence her.
Meanwhile the General went for the bottle and a tumbler, and returned to the room above. His prisoner was leaning against the chimney-piece, his head was bare, he had flung down his hat on one of the two chairs. Evidently he had not expected to have so bright a light turned upon him, and he frowned and looked anxious as he met the General’s keen eyes; but his face softened and wore a gracious expression as he thanked his protector. When the latter placed the bottle and glass on the mantel-shelf, the stranger’s eyes flashed out on him again; and when he spoke, it was in musical tones with no sign of the previous guttural convulsion, though his voice was still unsteady with repressed emotion.
“I shall seem to you to be a strange being, sir, but you must pardon the caprices of necessity. If you propose to remain in the room, I beg that you will not look at me while I am drinking.”
Vexed at this continual obedience to a man whom he disliked, the General sharply turned his back upon him. The stranger thereupon drew a white handkerchief from his pocket and wound it about his right hand. Then he seized the carafe and emptied it at a draught. The Marquis, staring vacantly into the tall mirror across the room, without a thought of breaking his implicit promise, saw the stranger’s figure distinctly reflected by the opposite looking-glass, and saw, too, a red stain suddenly appear through the folds of the white bandage. The man’s hands were steeped in blood.
“Ah! you saw me!” cried the other. He had drunk off the water and wrapped himself again in his cloak, and now scrutinized the General suspiciously. “It is all over with me! Here they come!”
“I don’t hear anything,” said the Marquis.
“You have not the same interest that I have in listening for sounds in the air.”
“You have been fighting a duel, I suppose, to be in such a state?” queried the General, not a little disturbed by the color of those broad, dark patches staining his visitor’s cloak.
“Yes, a duel; you have it,” said the other, and a bitter smile flitted over his lips.
As he spoke a sound rang along the distant road, a sound of galloping horses; but so faint as yet, that it was the merest dawn of a sound. The General’s trained ear recognized the advance of a troop of regulars.
“That is the gendarmerie,” said he.
He glanced at his prisoner to reassure him after his own involuntary indiscretion, took the lamp, and went down to the salon. He had scarcely laid the key of the room above upon the chimney-piece when the hoof beats sounded louder and came swiftly nearer and nearer the house. The General felt a shiver of excitement, and indeed the horses stopped at the house door; a few words were exchanged among the men, and one of them dismounted and knocked loudly. There was no help for it; the General went to open the door. He could scarcely conceal his inward perturbation at the sight of half a dozen gendarmes outside, the metal rims of their caps gleaming like silver in the moonlight.
“My lord,” said the corporal, “have you heard a man run past towards the barrier within the last few minutes?”
“Towards the barrier? No.”
“Have you opened the door to any one?”
“Now, am I in the habit of answering the door myself —”
“I ask your pardon, General, but just now it seems to me that —”
“Really!” cried the Marquis wrathfully. “Have you a mind to try joking with me? What right have you —?”
“None at all, none at all, my lord,” cried the corporal, hastily putting in a soft answer. “You will excuse our zeal. We know, of course, that a peer of France is not likely to harbor a murderer at this time of night; but as we want any information we can get —”
“A murderer!” cried the General. “Who can have been —”
“M. le Baron de Mauny has just been murdered. It was a blow from an axe, and we are in hot pursuit of the criminal. We know for certain that he is somewhere in this neighborhood, and we shall hunt him down. By your leave, General,” and the man swung himself into the saddle as he spoke. It was well that he did so, for a corporal of gendarmerie trained to alert observation and quick surmise would have had his suspicions at once if he had caught sight of the General’s face. Everything that passed through the soldier’s mind was faithfully revealed in his frank countenance.
“Is it known who the murderer is?” asked he.
“No,” said the other, now in the saddle. “He left the bureau full of banknotes and gold untouched.”
“It was revenge, then,” said the Marquis.
“On an old man? pshaw! No, no, the fellow hadn’t time to take it, that was all,” and the corporal galloped after his comrades, who were almost out of sight by this time.
For a few minutes the General stood, a victim to perplexities which need no explanation; but in a moment he heard the servants returning home, their voices were raised in some sort of dispute at the cross-roads of Montreuil. When they came in, he gave vent to his feelings in an explosion of rage, his wrath fell upon them like a thunderbolt, and all the echoes of the house trembled at the sound of his voice. In the midst of the storm his own man, the boldest and cleverest of the party, brought out an excuse; they had been stopped, he said, by the gendarmerie at the gate of Montreuil, a murder had been committed, and the police were in pursuit. In a moment the General’s anger vanished, he said not another word; then, bethinking himself of his own singular position, drily ordered them all off to bed at once, and left them amazed at his readiness to accept their fellow servant’s lying excuse.
While these incidents took place in the yard, an apparently trifling occurrence had changed the relative positions of three characters in this story. The Marquis had scarcely left the room before his wife looked first towards the key on the mantel-shelf, and then at Helene; and, after some wavering, bent towards her daughter and said in a low voice, “Helene your father has left the key on the chimney-piece.”
The girl looked up in surprise and glanced timidly at her mother. The Marquise’s eyes sparkled with curiosity.
“Well, mamma?” she said, and her voice had a troubled ring.
“I should like to know what is going on upstairs. If there is anybody up there, he has not stirred yet. Just go up —”
“I?” cried the girl, with something like horror in her tones.
“Are you afraid?”
“No, mamma, but I thought I heard a man’s footsteps.”
“If I could go myself, I should not have asked you to go, Helene,” said her mother with cold dignity. “If your father were to come back and did not see me, he would go to look for me perhaps, but he would not notice your absence.”
“Madame, if you bid me go, I will go,” said Helene, “but I shall lose my father’s good opinion —”
“What is this!” cried the Marquise in a sarcastic tone. “But since you take a thing that was said in joke in earnest, I now order you to go upstairs and see who is in the room above. Here is the key, child. When your father told you to say nothing about this thing that happened, he did not forbid you to go up to the room. Go at once — and learn that a daughter ought never to judge her mother.”
The last words were spoken with all the severity of a justly offended mother. The Marquise took the key and handed it to Helene, who rose without a word and left the room.
“My mother can always easily obtain her pardon,” thought the girl; “but as for me, my father will never think the same of me again. Does she mean to rob me of his tenderness? Does she want to turn me out of his house?”
These were the thoughts that set her imagination in a sudden ferment, as she went down the dark passage to the mysterious door at the end. When she stood before it, her mental confusion grew to a fateful pitch. Feelings hitherto forced down into inner depths crowded up at the summons of these confused thoughts. Perhaps hitherto she had never believed that a happy life lay before her, but now, in this awful moment, her despair was complete. She shook convulsively as she set the key in the lock; so great indeed was her agitation, that she stopped for a moment and laid her hand on her heart, as if to still the heavy throbs that sounded in her ears. Then she opened the door.
The creaking of the hinges sounded doubtless in vain on the murderer’s ears. Acute as were his powers of hearing, he stood as if lost in thought, and so motionless that he might have been glued to the wall against which he leaned. In the circle of semi-opaque darkness, dimly lit by the bull’s-eye lantern, he looked like the shadowy figure of some dead knight, standing for ever in his shadowy mortuary niche in the gloom of some Gothic chapel. Drops of cold sweat trickled over the broad, sallow forehead. An incredible fearlessness looked out from every tense feature. His eyes of fire were fixed and tearless; he seemed to be watching some struggle in the darkness beyond him. Stormy thoughts passed swiftly across a face whose firm decision spoke of a character of no common order. His whole person, bearing, and frame bore out the impression of a tameless spirit. The man looked power and strength personified; he stood facing the darkness as if it were the visible image of his own future.
These physical characteristics had made no impression upon the General, familiar as he was with the powerful faces of the group of giants gathered about Napoleon; speculative curiosity, moreover, as to the why and wherefore of the apparition had completely filled his mind; but Helene, with feminine sensitiveness to surface impressions, was struck by the blended chaos of light and darkness, grandeur and passion, suggesting a likeness between this stranger and Lucifer recovering from his fall. Suddenly the storm apparent in his face was stilled as if by magic; and the indefinable power to sway which the stranger exercised upon others, and perhaps unconsciously and as by reflex action upon himself, spread its influence about him with the progressive swiftness of a flood. A torrent of thought rolled away from his brow as his face resumed its ordinary expression. Perhaps it was the strangeness of this meeting, or perhaps it was the mystery into which she had penetrated, that held the young girl spellbound in the doorway, so that she could look at a face pleasant to behold and full of interest. For some moments she stood in the magical silence; a trouble had come upon her never known before in her young life. Perhaps some exclamation broke from Helene, perhaps she moved unconsciously; or it may be that the hunted criminal returned of his own accord from the world of ideas to the material world, and heard some one breathing in the room; however it was, he turned his head towards his host’s daughter, and saw dimly in the shadow a noble face and queenly form, which he must have taken for an angel’s, so motionless she stood, so vague and like a spirit.
“Monsieur . . . ” a trembling voice cried.
The murderer trembled.
“A woman!” he cried under his breath. “Is it possible? Go,” he cried, “I deny that any one has a right to pity, to absolve, or condemn me. I must live alone. Go, my child,” he added, with an imperious gesture, “I should ill requite the service done me by the master of the house if I were to allow a single creature under his roof to breathe the same air with me. I must submit to be judged by the laws of the world.”
The last words were uttered in a lower voice. Even as he realized with a profound intuition all the manifold misery awakened by that melancholy thought, the glance that he gave Helene had something of the power of the serpent, stirring a whole dormant world in the mind of the strange girl before him. To her that glance was like a light revealing unknown lands. She was stricken with strange trouble, helpless, quelled by a magnetic power exerted unconsciously. Trembling and ashamed, she went out and returned to the salon. She had scarcely entered the room before her father came back, so that she had not time to say a word to her mother.
The General was wholly absorbed in thought. He folded his arms, and paced silently to and fro between the windows which looked out upon the street and the second row which gave upon the garden. His wife lay the sleeping Abel on her knee, and little Moina lay in untroubled slumber in the low chair, like a bird in its nest. Her older sister stared into the fire, a skein of silk in one hand, a needle in the other.
Deep silence prevailed, broken only by lagging footsteps on the stairs, as one by one the servants crept away to bed; there was an occasional burst of stifled laughter, a last echo of the wedding festivity, or doors were opened as they still talked among themselves, then shut. A smothered sound came now and again from the bedrooms, a chair fell, the old coachman coughed feebly, then all was silent.
In a little while the dark majesty with which sleeping earth is invested at midnight brought all things under its sway. No lights shone but the light of the stars. The frost gripped the ground. There was not a sound of a voice, nor a living creature stirring. The crackling of the fire only seemed to make the depth of the silence more fully felt.
The church clock of Montreuil had just struck one, when an almost inaudible sound of a light footstep came from the second flight of stairs. The Marquis and his daughter, both believing that M. de Mauny’s murderer was a prisoner above, thought that one of the maids had come down, and no one was at all surprised to hear the door open in the ante-chamber. Quite suddenly the murderer appeared in their midst. The Marquis himself was sunk in deep musings, the mother and daughter were silent, the one from keen curiosity, the other from sheer astonishment, so that the visitor was almost half-way across the room when he spoke to the General.
“Sir, the two hours are almost over,” he said, in a voice that was strangely calm and musical.
“You here!” cried the General. “By what means ——?” and he gave wife and daughter a formidable questioning glance. Helene grew red as fire.
“You!” he went on, in a tone filled with horror. “You among us! A murderer covered with blood! You are a blot on this picture! Go, go out!” he added in a burst of rage.
At that word “murderer,” the Marquise cried out; as for Helene, it seemed to mark an epoch in her life, there was not a trace of surprise in her face. She looked as if she had been waiting for this — for him. Those so vast thoughts of hers had found a meaning. The punishment reserved by Heaven for her sins flamed out before her. In her own eyes she was as great a criminal as this murderer; she confronted him with her quiet gaze; she was his fellow, his sister. It seemed to her that in this accident the command of God had been made manifest. If she had been a few years older, reason would have disposed of her remorse, but at this moment she was like one distraught.
The stranger stood impassive and self-possessed; a scornful smile overspread his features and his thick, red lips.
“You appreciate the magnanimity of my behavior very badly,” he said slowly. “I would not touch with my fingers the glass of water you brought me to allay my thirst; I did not so much as think of washing my blood-stained hands under your roof; I am going away, leaving nothing of my crime” (here his lips were compressed) “but the memory; I have tried to leave no trace of my presence in this house. Indeed, I would not even allow your daughter to —”
“My daughter!” cried the General, with a horror-stricken glance at Helene. “Vile wretch, go, or I will kill you —”
“The two hours are not yet over,” said the other; “if you kill me or give me up, you must lower yourself in your own eyes — and in mine.”
At these last words, the General turned to stare at the criminal in dumb amazement; but he could not endure the intolerable light in those eyes which for the second time disorganized his being. He was afraid of showing weakness once more, conscious as he was that his will was weaker already.
“An old man! You can never have seen a family,” he said, with a father’s glance at his wife and children.
“Yes, an old man,” echoed the stranger, frowning slightly.
“Fly!” cried the General, but he did not dare to look at his guest. “Our compact is broken. I shall not kill you. No! I will never be purveyor to the scaffold. But go out. You make us shudder.”
“I know that,” said the other patiently. “There is not a spot on French soil where I can set foot and be safe; but if man’s justice, like God’s, took all into account, if man’s justice deigned to inquire which was the monster — the murderer or his victim — then I might hold up my head among my fellows. Can you not guess that other crimes preceded that blow from an axe? I constituted myself his judge and executioner; I stepped in where man’s justice failed. That was my crime. Farewell, sir. Bitter though you have made your hospitality, I shall not forget it. I shall always bear in my heart a feeling of gratitude towards one man in the world, and you are that man. . . . But I could wish that you had showed yourself more generous!”
He turned towards the door, but in the same instant Helene leaned to whisper something in her mother’s ear.
“Ah! . . . ”
At the cry that broke from his wife, the General trembled as if he had seen Moina lying dead. There stood Helene and the murderer had turned instinctively, with something like anxiety about these folk in his face.
“What is it, dear?” asked the General.
“Helene wants to go with him.”
The murderer’s face flushed.
“If that is how my mother understands an almost involuntary exclamation,” Helene said in a low voice, “I will fulfil her wishes. She glanced about her with something like fierce pride; then the girl’s eyes fell, and she stood, admirable in her modesty.
“Helene, did you go up to the room where ——?”
“Helene” (and his voice shook with a convulsive tremor), “is this the first time that you have seen this man?”
“Then it is not natural that you should intend to —”
“If it is not natural, father, at any rate it is true.”
“Oh! child,” said the Marquise, lowering her voice, but not so much but that her husband could hear her, “you are false to all the principles of honor, modesty, and right which I have tried to cultivate in your heart. If until this fatal hour you life has only been one lie, there is nothing to regret in your loss. It can hardly be the moral perfection of this stranger that attracts you to him? Can it be the kind of power that commits crime? I have too good an opinion of you to suppose that —”
“Oh, suppose everything, madame,” Helene said coldly.
But though her force of character sustained this ordeal, her flashing eyes could scarcely hold the tears that filled them. The stranger, watching her, guessed the mother’s language from the girl’s tears, and turned his eagle glance upon the Marquise. An irresistible power constrained her to look at this terrible seducer; but as her eyes met his bright, glittering gaze, she felt a shiver run through her frame, such a shock as we feel at the sight of a reptile or the contact of a Leyden jar.
“Dear!” she cried, turning to her husband, “this is the Fiend himself. He can divine everything!”
The General rose to his feet and went to the bell.
“He means ruin for you,” Helene said to the murderer.
The stranger smiled, took one forward stride, grasped the General’s arm, and compelled him to endure a steady gaze which benumbed the soldier’s brain and left him powerless.
“I will repay you now for your hospitality,” he said, “and then we shall be quits. I will spare you the shame by giving myself up. After all, what should I do now with my life?”
“You could repent,” answered Helene, and her glance conveyed such hope as only glows in a young girl’s eyes.
“I shall never repent,” said the murderer in a sonorous voice, as he raised his head proudly.
“His hands are stained with blood,” the father said.
“I will wipe it away,” she answered.
“But do you so much as know whether he cares for you?” said her father, not daring now to look at the stranger.
The murderer came up a little nearer. Some light within seemed to glow through Helene’s beauty, grave and maidenly though it was, coloring and bringing into relief, as it were, the least details, the most delicate lines in her face. The stranger, with that terrible face still blazing in his eyes, gave one tender glance to her enchanting loveliness, then he spoke, his tones revealing how deeply he had been moved.
“And if I refuse to allow this sacrifice of yourself, and so discharge my debt of two hours of existence to your father; is not this love, love for yourself alone?”
“Then do you too reject me?” Helene’s cry rang painfully through the hearts of all who heard her. “Farewell, then, to you all; I will die.”
“What does this mean?” asked the father and mother.
Helene gave her mother an eloquent glance and lowered her eyes.
Since the first attempt made by the General and his wife to contest by word or action the intruder’s strange presumption to the right of staying in their midst, from their first experience of the power of those glittering eyes, a mysterious torpor had crept over them, and their benumbed faculties struggled in vain with the preternatural influence. The air seemed to have suddenly grown so heavy, that they could scarcely breathe; yet, while they could not find the reason of this feeling of oppression, a voice within told them that this magnetic presence was the real cause of their helplessness. In this moral agony, it flashed across the General that he must make every effort to overcome this influence on his daughter’s reeling brain; he caught her by the waist and drew her into the embrasure of a window, as far as possible from the murderer.
“Darling,” he murmured, “if some wild love has been suddenly born in your heart, I cannot believe that you have not the strength of soul to quell the mad impulse; your innocent life, your pure and dutiful soul, has given me too many proofs of your character. There must be something behind all this. Well, this heart of mine is full of indulgence, you can tell everything to me; even if it breaks, dear child, I can be silent about my grief, and keep your confession a secret. What is it? Are you jealous of our love for your brothers or your little sister? Is it some love trouble? Are you unhappy here at home? Tell me about it, tell me the reasons that urge you to leave your home, to rob it of its greatest charm, to leave your mother and brothers and your little sister?”
“I am in love with no one, father, and jealous of no one, not even of your friend the diplomatist, M. de Vandenesse.”
The Marquise turned pale; her daughter saw this, and stopped short.
“Sooner or later I must live under some man’s protection, must I not?”
“That is true.”
“Do we ever know,” she went on, “the human being to whom we link our destinies? Now, I believe in this man.”
“Oh, child,” said the General, raising his voice, “you have no idea of all the misery that lies in store for you.”
“I am thinking of his.”
“What a life!” groaned the father.
“A woman’s life,” the girl murmured.
“You have a great knowledge of life!” exclaimed the Marquise, finding speech at last.
“Madame, my answers are shaped by the questions; but if you desire it, I will speak more clearly.”
“Speak out, my child . . . I am a mother.”
Mother and daughter looked each other in the face, and the Marquise said no more. At last she said:
“Helene, if you have any reproaches to make, I would rather bear them than see you go away with a man from whom the whole world shrinks in horror.”
“Then you see yourself, madame, that but for me he would be quite alone.”
“That will do, madame,” the General cried; “we have but one daughter left to us now,” and he looked at Moina, who slept on. “As for you,” he added, turning to Helene, “I will put you in a convent.”
“So be it, father,” she said, in calm despair, “I shall die there. You are answerable to God alone for my life and for his soul.”
A deep sullen silence fell after these words. The on-lookers during this strange scene, so utterly at variance with all the sentiments of ordinary life, shunned each other’s eyes.
Suddenly the Marquis happened to glance at his pistols. He caught up one of them, cocked the weapon, and pointed it at the intruder. At the click of firearms the other turned his piercing gaze full upon the General; the soldier’s arm slackened indescribably and fell heavily to his side. The pistol dropped to the floor.
“Girl, you are free,” said he, exhausted by this ghastly struggle. “Kiss your mother, if she will let you kiss her. For my own part, I wish never to see nor to hear of you again.”
“Helene,” the mother began, “only think of the wretched life before you.”
A sort of rattling sound came from the intruder’s deep chest, all eyes were turned to him. Disdain was plainly visible in his face.
The General rose to his feet. “My hospitality has cost me dear,” he cried. “Before you came you had taken an old man’s life; now your are dealing a deadly blow at a whole family. Whatever happens, there must be unhappiness in this house.”
“And if your daughter is happy?” asked the other, gazing steadily at the General.
The father made a superhuman effort for self-control. “If she is happy with you,” he said, “she is not worth regretting.”
Helene knelt timidly before her father.
“Father, I love and revere you,” she said, “whether you lavish all the treasures of your kindness upon me, or make me feel to the full the rigor of disgrace. . . . But I entreat that your last words of farewell shall not be words of anger.”
The General could not trust himself to look at her. The stranger came nearer; there was something half-diabolical, half-divine in the smile that he gave Helene.
“Angel of pity, you that do not shrink in horror from a murderer, come, since you persist in your resolution of intrusting your life to me.”
“Inconceivable!” cried her father.
The Marquise then looked strangely at her daughter, opened her arms, and Helene fled to her in tears.
“Farewell,” she said, “farewell, mother!” The stranger trembled as Helene, undaunted, made sign to him that she was ready. She kissed her father’s hand; and, as if performing a duty, gave a hasty kiss to Moina and little Abel, then she vanished with the murderer.
“Which way are they going?” exclaimed the General, listening to the footsteps of the two fugitives. —“Madame,” he turned to his wife, “I think I must be dreaming; there is some mystery behind all this, I do not understand it; you must know what it means.”
The Marquise shivered.
“For some time past your daughter has grown extraordinarily romantic and strangely high-flown in her ideas. In spite of the pains I have taken to combat these tendencies in her character —”
“This will not do ——” began the General, but fancying that he heard footsteps in the garden, he broke off to fling open the window.
“Helene!” he shouted.
His voice was lost in the darkness like a vain prophecy. The utterance of that name, to which there should never be answer any more, acted like a counterspell; it broke the charm and set him free from the evil enchantment which lay upon him. It was as if some spirit passed over his face. He now saw clearly what had taken place, and cursed his incomprehensible weakness. A shiver of heat rushed from his heart to his head and feet; he became himself once more, terrible, thirsting for revenge. He raised a dreadful cry.
“Help!” he thundered, “help!”
He rushed to the bell-pull, pulled till the bells rang with a strange clamor of din, pulled till the cord gave way. The whole house was roused with a start. Still shouting, he flung open the windows that looked upon the street, called for the police, caught up his pistols, and fired them off to hurry the mounted patrols, the newly-aroused servants, and the neighbors. The dogs barked at the sound of their master’s voice; the horses neighed and stamped in their stalls. The quiet night was suddenly filled with hideous uproar. The General on the staircase, in pursuit of his daughter, saw the scared faces of the servants flocking from all parts of the house.
“My daughter!” he shouted. “Helene has been carried off. Search the garden. Keep a lookout on the road! Open the gates for the gendarmerie! — Murder! Help!”
With the strength of fury he snapped the chain and let loose the great house-dog.
“Helene!” he cried, “Helene!”
The dog sprang out like a lion, barking furiously, and dashed into the garden, leaving the General far behind. A troop of horses came along the road at a gallop, and he flew to open the gates himself.
“Corporal!” he shouted, “cut off the retreat of M. de Mauny’s murderer. They have gone through my garden. Quick! Put a cordon of men to watch the ways by the Butte de Picardie. — I will beat up the grounds, parks, and houses. — The rest of you keep a lookout along the road,” he ordered the servants, “form a chain between the barrier and Versailles. Forward, every man of you!”
He caught up the rifle which his man had brought out, and dashed into the garden.
“Find them!” he called to the dog.
An ominous baying came in answer from the distance, and he plunged in the direction from which the growl seemed to come.
It was seven o’clock in the morning; all the search made by gendarmes, servants, and neighbors had been fruitless, and the dog had not come back. The General entered the salon, empty now for him though the other three children were there; he was worn out with fatigue, and looked old already with that night’s work.
“You have been very cold to your daughter,” he said, turning his eyes on his wife. —“And now this is all that is left to us of her,” he added, indicating the embroidery frame, and the flower just begun. “Only just now she was there, and now she is lost . . . lost!”
Tears followed; he hid his face in his hands, and for a few minutes he said no more; he could not bear the sight of the room, which so short a time ago had made a setting to a picture of the sweetest family happiness. The winter dawn was struggling with the dying lamplight; the tapers burned down to their paper-wreaths and flared out; everything was all in keeping with the father’s despair.
“This must be destroyed,” he said after a pause, pointing to the tambour-frame. “I shall never bear to see anything again that reminds us of her!”
The terrible Christmas night when the Marquis and his wife lost their oldest daughter, powerless to oppose the mysterious influence exercised by the man who involuntarily, as it were, stole Helene from them, was like a warning sent by Fate. The Marquis was ruined by the failure of his stock-broker; he borrowed money on his wife’s property, and lost it in the endeavor to retrieve his fortunes. Driven to desperate expedients, he left France. Six years went by. His family seldom had news of him; but a few days before Spain recognized the independence of the American Republics, he wrote that he was coming home.
So, one fine morning, it happened that several French merchants were on board a Spanish brig that lay a few leagues out from Bordeaux, impatient to reach their native land again, with wealth acquired by long years of toil and perilous adventures in Venezuela and Mexico.
One of the passengers, a man who looked aged by trouble rather than by years, was leaning against the bulwark netting, apparently quite unaffected by the sight to be seen from the upper deck. The bright day, the sense that the voyage was safely over, had brought all the passengers above to greet their land. The larger number of them insisted that they could see, far off in the distance, the houses and lighthouses on the coast of Gascony and the Tower of Cardouan, melting into the fantastic erections of white cloud along the horizon. But for the silver fringe that played about their bows, and the long furrow swiftly effaced in their wake, they might have been perfectly still in mid-ocean, so calm was the sea. The sky was magically clear, the dark blue of the vault above paled by imperceptible gradations, until it blended with the bluish water, a gleaming line that sparkled like stars marking the dividing line of sea. The sunlight caught myriads of facets over the wide surface of the ocean, in such a sort that the vast plains of salt water looked perhaps more full of light than the fields of sky.
The brig had set all her canvas. The snowy sails, swelled by the strangely soft wind, the labyrinth of cordage, and the yellow flags flying at the masthead, all stood out sharp and uncompromisingly clear against the vivid background of space, sky, and sea; there was nothing to alter the color but the shadow cast by the great cloudlike sails.
A glorious day, a fair wind, and the fatherland in sight, a sea like a mill-pond, the melancholy sound of the ripples, a fair, solitary vessel, gliding across the surface of the water like a woman stealing out to a tryst — it was a picture full of harmony. That mere speck full of movement was a starting-point whence the soul of man could descry the immutable vast of space. Solitude and bustling life, silence and sound, were all brought together in strange abrupt contrast; you could not tell where life, or sound, or silence, and nothingness lay, and no human voice broke the divine spell.
The Spanish captain, the crew, and the French passengers sat or stood, in a mood of devout ecstasy, in which many memories blended. There was idleness in the air. The beaming faces told of complete forgetfulness of past hardships, the men were rocked on the fair vessel as in a golden dream. Yet, from time to time the elderly passenger, leaning over the bulwark nettings, looked with something like uneasiness at the horizon. Distrust of the ways of Fate could be read in his whole face; he seemed to fear that he should not reach the coast of France in time. This was the Marquis. Fortune had not been deaf to his despairing cry and struggles. After five years of endeavor and painful toil, he was a wealthy man once more. In his impatience to reach his home again and to bring the good news to his family, he had followed the example set by some French merchants in Havana, and embarked with them on a Spanish vessel with a cargo for Bordeaux. And now, grown tired of evil forebodings, his fancy was tracing out for him the most delicious pictures of past happiness. In that far-off brown line of land he seemed to see his wife and children. He sat in his place by the fireside; they were crowding about him; he felt their caresses. Moina had grown to be a young girl; she was beautiful, and tall, and striking. The fancied picture had grown almost real, when the tears filled his eyes, and, to hide his emotion, he turned his face towards the sea-line, opposite the hazy streak that meant land.
“There she is again. . . . She is following us!” he said.
“What?” cried the Spanish captain.
“There is a vessel,” muttered the General.
“I saw her yesterday,” answered Captain Gomez. He looked at his interlocutor as if to ask what he thought; then he added in the General’s ear, “She has been chasing us all along.”
“Then why she has not come up with us, I do not know,” said the General, “for she is a faster sailor than your damned Saint–Ferdinand.”
“She will have damaged herself, sprung a leak —”
“She is gaining on us!” the General broke in.
“She is a Columbian privateer,” the captain said in his ear, “and we are still six leagues from land, and the wind is dropping.”
“She is not going ahead, she is flying, as if she knew that in two hours’ time her prey would escape her. What audacity!”
“Audacity!” cried the captain. “Oh! she is not called the Othello for nothing. Not so long back she sank a Spanish frigate that carried thirty guns! This is the one thing I was afraid of, for I had a notion that she was cruising about somewhere off the Antilles. — Aha!” he added after a pause, as he watched the sails of his own vessel, “the wind is rising; we are making way. Get through we must, for ‘the Parisian’ will show us no mercy.”
“She is making way too!” returned the General.
The Othello was scarce three leagues away by this time; and although the conversation between the Marquis and Captain Gomez had taken place apart, passengers and crew, attracted by the sudden appearance of a sail, came to that side of the vessel. With scarcely an exception, however, they took the privateer for a merchantman, and watched her course with interest, till all at once a sailor shouted with some energy of language:
“By Saint–James, it is all up with us! Yonder is the Parisian captain!”
At that terrible name dismay, and a panic impossible to describe, spread through the brig. The Spanish captain’s orders put energy into the crew for a while; and in his resolute determination to make land at all costs, he set all the studding sails, and crowded on every stitch of canvas on board. But all this was not the work of a moment; and naturally the men did not work together with that wonderful unanimity so fascinating to watch on board a man-of-war. The Othello meanwhile, thanks to the trimming of her sails, flew over the water like a swallow; but she was making, to all appearance, so little headway, that the unlucky Frenchmen began to entertain sweet delusive hopes. At last, after unheard-of efforts, the Saint–Ferdinand sprang forward, Gomez himself directing the shifting of the sheets with voice and gesture, when all at once the man at the tiller, steering at random (purposely, no doubt), swung the vessel round. The wind striking athwart the beam, the sails shivered so unexpectedly that the brig heeled to one side, the booms were carried away, and the vessel was completely out of hand. The captain’s face grew whiter than his sails with unutterable rage. He sprang upon the man at the tiller, drove his dagger at him in such blind fury, that he missed him, and hurled the weapon overboard. Gomez took the helm himself, and strove to right the gallant vessel. Tears of despair rose to his eyes, for it is harder to lose the result of our carefully-laid plans through treachery than to face imminent death. But the more the captain swore, the less the men worked, and it was he himself who fired the alarm-gun, hoping to be heard on shore. The privateer, now gaining hopelessly upon them, replied with a cannon-shot, which struck the water ten fathoms away from the Saint–Ferdinand.
“Thunder of heaven!” cried the General, “that was a close shave! They must have guns made on purpose.”
“Oh! when that one yonder speaks, look you, you have to hold your tongue,” said a sailor. “The Parisian would not be afraid to meet an English man-of-war.”
“It is all over with us,” the captain cried in desperation; he had pointed his telescope landwards, and saw not a sign from the shore. “We are further from the coast than I thought.”
“Why do you despair?” asked the General. “All your passengers are Frenchmen; they have chartered your vessel. The privateer is a Parisian, you say? Well and good, run up the white flag, and —”
“And he would run us down,” retorted the captain. “He can be anything he likes when he has a mind to seize on a rich booty!”
“Oh! if he is a pirate —”
“Pirate!” said the ferocious looking sailor. “Oh! he always has the law on his side, or he knows how to be on the same side as the law.”
“Very well,” said the General, raising his eyes, “let us make up our minds to it,” and his remaining fortitude was still sufficient to keep back the tears.
The words were hardly out of his mouth before a second cannon-shot, better aimed, came crashing through the hull of the Saint–Ferdinand.
“Heave to!” cried the captain gloomily.
The sailor who had commended the Parisian’s law-abiding proclivities showed himself a clever hand at working a ship after this desperate order was given. The crew waited for half an hour in an agony of suspense and the deepest dismay. The Saint–Ferdinand had four millions of piastres on board, the whole fortunes of the five passengers, and the General’s eleven hundred thousand francs. At length the Othello lay not ten gunshots away, so that those on the Saint–Ferdinand could look into the muzzles of her loaded guns. The vessel seemed to be borne along by a breeze sent by the Devil himself, but the eyes of an expert would have discovered the secret of her speed at once. You had but to look for a moment at the rake of her stern, her long, narrow keel, her tall masts, to see the cut of her sails, the wonderful lightness of her rigging, and the ease and perfect seamanship with which her crew trimmed her sails to the wind. Everything about her gave the impression of the security of power in this delicately curved inanimate creature, swift and intelligent as a greyhound or some bird of prey. The privateer crew stood silent, ready in case of resistance to shatter the wretched merchantman, which, luckily for her, remained motionless, like a schoolboy caught in flagrant delict by a master.
“We have guns on board!” cried the General, clutching the Spanish captain’s hand. But the courage in Gomez’s eyes was the courage of despair.
“Have we men?” he said.
The Marquis looked round at the crew of the Saint–Ferdinand, and a cold chill ran through him. There stood the four merchants, pale and quaking for fear, while the crew gathered about some of their own number who appeared to be arranging to go over in a body to the enemy. They watched the Othello with greed and curiosity in their faces. The captain, the Marquis, and the mate exchanged glances; they were the only three who had a thought for any but themselves.
“Ah! Captain Gomez, when I left my home and country, my heart was half dead with the bitterness of parting, and now must I bid it good-bye once more when I am bringing back happiness and ease for my children?”
The General turned his head away towards the sea, with tears of rage in his eyes — and saw the steersman swimming out to the privateer.
“This time it will be good-bye for good,” said the captain by way of answer, and the dazed look in the Frenchman’s eyes startled the Spaniard.
By this time the two vessels were almost alongside, and at the first sight of the enemy’s crew the General saw that Gomez’s gloomy prophecy was only too true. The three men at each gun might have been bronze statues, standing like athletes, with their rugged features, their bare sinewy arms, men whom Death himself had scarcely thrown off their feet.
The rest of the crew, well armed, active, light, and vigorous, also stood motionless. Toil had hardened, and the sun had deeply tanned, those energetic faces; their eyes glittered like sparks of fire with infernal glee and clear-sighted courage. Perfect silence on the upper deck, now black with men, bore abundant testimony to the rigorous discipline and strong will which held these fiends incarnate in check.
The captain of the Othello stood with folded arms at the foot of the main mast; he carried no weapons, but an axe lay on the deck beside him. His face was hidden by the shadow of a broad felt hat. The men looked like dogs crouching before their master. Gunners, soldiers, and ship’s crew turned their eyes first on his face, and then on the merchant vessel.
The two brigs came up alongside, and the shock of contact roused the privateer captain from his musings; he spoke a word in the ear of the lieutenant who stood beside him.
“Grappling-irons!” shouted the latter, and the Othello grappled the Saint–Ferdinand with miraculous quickness. The captain of the privateer gave his orders in a low voice to the lieutenant, who repeated them; the men, told off in succession for each duty, went on the upper deck of the Saint–Ferdinand, like seminarists going to mass. They bound crew and passengers hand and foot and seized the booty. In the twinkling of an eye, provisions and barrels full of piastres were transferred to the Othello; the General thought that he must be dreaming when he himself, likewise bound, was flung down on a bale of goods as if he had been part of the cargo.
A brief conference took place between the captain of the privateer and his lieutenant and a sailor, who seemed to be the mate of the vessel; then the mate gave a whistle, and the men jumped on board the Saint–Ferdinand, and completely dismantled her with the nimble dexterity of a soldier who strips a dead comrade of a coveted overcoat and shoes.
“It is all over with us,” said the Spanish captain coolly. He had eyed the three chiefs during their confabulation, and saw that the sailors were proceeding to pull his vessel to pieces.
“Why so?” asked the General.
“What would you have them do with us?” returned the Spaniard. “They have just come to the conclusion that they will scarcely sell the Saint–Ferdinand in any French or Spanish port, so they are going to sink her to be rid of her. As for us, do you suppose that they will put themselves to the expense of feeding us, when they don’t know what port they are to put into?”
The words were scarcely out of the captain’s mouth before a hideous outcry went up, followed by a dull splashing sound, as several bodies were thrown overboard. He turned, the four merchants were no longer to be seen, but eight ferocious-looking gunners were still standing with their arms raised above their heads. He shuddered.
“What did I tell you?” the Spanish captain asked coolly.
The Marquis rose to his feet with a spring. The surface of the sea was quite smooth again; he could not so much as see the place where his unhappy fellow-passengers had disappeared. By this time they were sinking down, bound hand and foot, below the waves, if, indeed, the fish had not devoured them already.
Only a few paces away, the treacherous steersman and the sailor who had boasted of the Parisian’s power were fraternizing with the crew of the Othello, and pointing out those among their own number, who, in their opinion, were worthy to join the crew of the privateer. Then the boys tied the rest together by the feet in spite of frightful oaths. It was soon over; the eight gunners seized the doomed men and flung them overboard without more ado, watching the different ways in which the drowning victims met their death, their contortions, their last agony, with a sort of malignant curiosity, but with no sign of amusement, surprise, or pity. For them it was an ordinary event to which seemingly they were quite accustomed. The older men looked instead with grim, set smiles at the casks of piastres about the main mast.
The General and Captain Gomez, left seated on a bale of goods, consulted each other with well-nigh hopeless looks; they were, in a sense, the sole survivors of the Saint–Ferdinand, for the seven men pointed out by the spies were transformed amid rejoicings into Peruvians.
“What atrocious villains!” the General cried. Loyal and generous indignation silenced prudence and pain on his own account.
“They do it because they must,” Gomez answered coolly. “If you came across one of those fellows, you would run him through the body, would you not?”
The lieutenant now came up to the Spaniard.
“Captain,” said he, “the Parisian has heard of you. He says that you are the only man who really knows the passages of the Antilles and the Brazilian coast. Will you —”
The captain cut him short with a scornful exclamation.
“I shall die like a sailor,” he said, “and a loyal Spaniard and a Christian. Do you hear?”
“Heave him overboard!” shouted the lieutenant, and a couple of gunners seized on Gomez.
“You cowards!” roared the General, seizing hold of the men.
“Don’t get too excited, old boy,” said the lieutenant. “If your red ribbon has made some impression upon our captain, I myself do not care a rap for it. — You and I will have our little bit of talk together directly.”
A smothered sound, with no accompanying cry, told the General that the gallant captain had died “like a sailor,” as he had said.
“My money or death!” cried the Marquis, in a fit of rage terrible to see.
“Ah! now you talk sensibly!” sneered the lieutenant. “That is the way to get something out of us ——”
Two of the men came up at a sign and hastened to bind the Frenchmen’s feet, but with unlooked-for boldness he snatched the lieutenant’s cutlass and laid about him like a cavalry officer who knows his business.
“Brigands that you are! You shall not chuck one of Napoleon’s troopers over a ship’s side like an oyster!”
At the sound of pistol shots fired point blank at the Frenchman, “the Parisian” looked round from his occupation of superintending the transfer of the rigging from the Saint–Ferdinand. He came up behind the brave General, seized him, dragged him to the side, and was about to fling him over with no more concern than if the man had been a broken spar. They were at the very edge when the General looked into the tawny eyes of the man who had stolen his daughter. The recognition was mutual.
The captain of the privateer, his arm still upraised, suddenly swung it in the contrary direction as if his victim was but a feather weight, and set him down at the foot of the main mast. A murmur rose on the upper deck, but the captain glanced round, and there was a sudden silence.
“This is Helene’s father,” said the captain in a clear, firm voice. “Woe to any one who meddles with him!”
A hurrah of joy went up at the words, a shout rising to the sky like a prayer of the church; a cry like the first high notes of the Te Deum. The lads swung aloft in the rigging, the men below flung up their caps, the gunners pounded away on the deck, there was a general thrill of excitement, an outburst of oaths, yells, and shrill cries in voluble chorus. The men cheered like fanatics, the General’s misgivings deepened, and he grew uneasy; it seemed to him that there was some horrible mystery in such wild transports.
“My daughter!” he cried, as soon as he could speak. “Where is my daughter?”
For all answer, the captain of the privateer gave him a searching glance, one of those glances which throw the bravest man into a confusion which no theory can explain. The General was mute, not a little to the satisfaction of the crew; it pleased them to see their leader exercise the strange power which he possessed over all with whom he came in contact. Then the captain led the way down a staircase and flung open the door of a cabin.
“There she is,” he said, and disappeared, leaving the General in a stupor of bewilderment at the scene before his eyes.
Helene cried out at the sight of him, and sprang up from the sofa on which she was lying when the door flew open. So changed was she that none but a father’s eyes could have recognized her. The sun of the tropics had brought warmer tones into the once pale face, and something of Oriental charm with that wonderful coloring; there was a certain grandeur about her, a majestic firmness, a profound sentiment which impresses itself upon the coarsest nature. Her long, thick hair, falling in large curls about her queenly throat, gave an added idea of power to the proud face. The consciousness of that power shone out from every movement, every line of Helene’s form. The rose-tinted nostrils were dilated slightly with the joy of triumph; the serene happiness of her life had left its plain tokens in the full development of her beauty. A certain indefinable virginal grace met in her with the pride of a woman who is loved. This was a slave and a queen, a queen who would fain obey that she might reign.
Her dress was magnificent and elegant in its richness; India muslin was the sole material, but her sofa and cushions were of cashmere. A Persian carpet covered the floor in the large cabin, and her four children playing at her feet were building castles of gems and pearl necklaces and jewels of price. The air was full of the scent of rare flowers in Sevres porcelain vases painted by Madame Jacotot; tiny South American birds, like living rubies, sapphires, and gold, hovered among the Mexican jessamines and camellias. A pianoforte had been fitted into the room, and here and there on the paneled walls, covered with red silk, hung small pictures by great painters — a Sunset by Hippolyte Schinner beside a Terburg, one of Raphael’s Madonnas scarcely yielded in charm to a sketch by Gericault, while a Gerard Dow eclipsed the painters of the Empire. On a lacquered table stood a golden plate full of delicious fruit. Indeed, Helene might have been the sovereign lady of some great country, and this cabin of hers a boudoir in which her crowned lover had brought together all earth’s treasure to please his consort. The children gazed with bright, keen eyes at their grandfather. Accustomed as they were to a life of battle, storm, and tumult, they recalled the Roman children in David’s Brutus, watching the fighting and bloodshed with curious interest.
“What! is it possible?” cried Helene, catching her father’s arm as if to assure herself that this was no vision.
They fell into each other’s arms, and the old man’s embrace was not so close and warm as Helene’s.
“Were you on board that vessel?”
“Yes,” he answered sadly, and looking at the little ones, who gathered about him and gazed with wide open eyes.
“I was about to perish, but —”
“But for my husband,” she broke in. “I see how it was.”
“Ah!” cried the General, “why must I find you again like this, Helene? After all the many tears that I have shed, must I still groan for your fate?”
“And why?” she asked, smiling. “Why should you be sorry to learn that I am the happiest woman under the sun?”
“Happy?” he cried with a start of surprise.
“Yes, happy, my kind father,” and she caught his hands in hers and covered them with kisses, and pressed them to her throbbing heart. Her caresses, and a something in the carriage of her head, were interpreted yet more plainly by the joy sparkling in her eyes.
“And how is this?” he asked, wondering at his daughter’s life, forgetful now of everything but the bright glowing face before him.
“Listen, father; I have for lover, husband, servant, and master one whose soul is as great as the boundless sea, as infinite in his kindness as heaven, a god on earth! Never during these seven years has a chance look, or word, or gesture jarred in the divine harmony of his talk, his love, his caresses. His eyes have never met mine without a gleam of happiness in them; there has always been a bright smile on his lips for me. On deck, his voice rises above the thunder of storms and the tumult of battle; but here below it is soft and melodious as Rossini’s music — for he has Rossini’s music sent for me. I have everything that woman’s caprice can imagine. My wishes are more than fulfilled. In short, I am a queen on the seas; I am obeyed here as perhaps a queen may be obeyed. — Ah!” she cried, interrupting herself, “happy did I say? Happiness is no word to express such bliss as mine. All the happiness that should have fallen to all the women in the world has been my share. Knowing one’s own great love and self-devotion, to find in his heart an infinite love in which a woman’s soul is lost, and lost for ever — tell me, is this happiness? I have lived through a thousand lives even now. Here, I am alone; here, I command. No other woman has set foot on this noble vessel, and Victor is never more than a few paces distant from me — he cannot wander further from me than from stern to prow,” she added, with a shade of mischief in her manner. “Seven years! A love that outlasts seven years of continual joy, that endures all the tests brought by all the moments that make up seven years — is this love? Oh, no, no! it is something better than all that I know of life . . . human language fails to express the bliss of heaven.”
A sudden torrent of tears fell from her burning eyes. The four little ones raised a piteous cry at this, and flocked like chickens about their mother. The oldest boy struck the General with a threatening look.
“Abel, darling,” said Helene, “I am crying for joy.”
Helene took him on her knee, and the child fondled her, putting his arms about her queenly neck, as a lion’s whelp might play with the lioness.
“Do you never weary of your life?” asked the General, bewildered by his daughter’s enthusiastic language.
“Yes,” she said, “sometimes, when we are on land, yet even then I have never parted from my husband.”
“But you need to be fond of music and balls and fetes.”
“His voice is music for me; and for fetes, I devise new toilettes for him to see. When he likes my dress, it is as if all the world admired me. Simply for that reason I keep the diamonds and jewels, the precious things, the flowers and masterpieces of art that he heaps upon me, saying, ‘Helene, as you live out of the world, I will have the world come to you.’ But for that I would fling them all overboard.”
“But there are others on board, wild, reckless men whose passions —”
“I understand, father,” she said smiling. “Do not fear for me. Never was empress encompassed with more observance than I. The men are very superstitious; they look upon me as a sort of tutelary genius, the luck of the vessel. But he is their god; they worship him. Once, and once only, one of the crew showed disrespect, mere words,” she added, laughing; “but before Victor knew of it, the others flung the offender overboard, although I forgave him. They love me as their good angel; I nurse them when they are ill; several times I have been so fortunate as to save a life, by constant care such as a woman can give. Poor fellows, they are giants, but they are children at the same time.”
“And when there is fighting overhead?”
“I am used to it now; I quaked for fear during the first engagement, but never since. — I am used to such peril, and — I am your daughter,” she said; “I love it.”
“But how if he should fall?”
“I should die with him.”
“And your children?”
“They are children of the sea and of danger; they share the life of their parents. We have but one life, and we do not flinch from it. We have but one life, our names are written on the same page of the book of Fate, one skiff bears us and our fortunes, and we know it.”
“Do you so love him that he is more to you than all beside?”
“All beside?” echoed she. “Let us leave that mystery alone. Yet stay! there is this dear little one — well, this too is he,” and straining Abel to her in a tight clasp, she set eager kisses on his cheeks and hair.
“But I can never forget that he has just drowned nine men!” exclaimed the General.
“There was no help for it, doubtless,” she said, “for he is generous and humane. He sheds as little blood as may be, and only in the interests of the little world which he defends, and the sacred cause for which he is fighting. Talk to him about anything that seems to you to be wrong, and he will convince you, you will see.”
“There was that crime of his,” muttered the General to himself.
“But how if that crime was a virtue?” she asked, with cold dignity. “How if man’s justice had failed to avenge a great wrong?”
“But a private revenge!” exclaimed her father.
“But what is hell,” she cried, “but a revenge through all eternity for the wrong done in a little day?”
“Ah! you are lost! He has bewitched and perverted you. You are talking wildly.”
“Stay with us one day, father, and if you will but listen to him, and see him, you will love him.”
“Helene, France lies only a few leagues away,” he said gravely.
Helene trembled; then she went to the porthole and pointed to the savannas of green water spreading far and wide.
“There lies my country,” she said, tapping the carpet with her foot.
“But are you not coming with me to see your mother and your sister and brothers?”
“Oh! yes,” she cried, with tears in her voice, “if he is willing, if he will come with me.”
“So,” the General said sternly, “you have neither country nor kin now, Helene?”
“I am his wife,” she answered proudly, and there was something very noble in her tone. “This is the first happiness in seven years that has not come to me through him,” she said — then, as she caught her father’s hand and kissed it —“and this is the first word of reproach that I have heard.”
“And your conscience?”
“My conscience; he is my conscience!” she cried, trembling from head to foot. “Here he is! Even in the thick of a fight I can tell his footstep among all the others on deck,” she cried.
A sudden crimson flushed her cheeks and glowed in her features, her eyes lighted up, her complexion changed to velvet whiteness, there was joy and love in every fibre, in the blue veins, in the unconscious trembling of her whole frame. That quiver of the sensitive plant softened the General.
It was as she had said. The captain came in, sat down in an easy-chair, took up his oldest boy, and began to play with him. There was a moment’s silence, for the General’s deep musing had grown vague and dreamy, and the daintily furnished cabin and the playing children seemed like a nest of halcyons, floating on the waves, between sky and sea, safe in the protection of this man who steered his way amid the perils of war and tempest, as other heads of household guide those in their care among the hazards of common life. He gazed admiringly at Helene — a dreamlike vision of some sea goddess, gracious in her loveliness, rich in happiness; all the treasures about her grown poor in comparison with the wealth of her nature, paling before the brightness of her eyes, the indefinable romance expressed in her and her surroundings.
The strangeness of the situation took the General by surprise; the ideas of ordinary life were thrown into confusion by this lofty passion and reasoning. Chill and narrow social conventions faded away before this picture. All these things the old soldier felt, and saw no less how impossible it was that his daughter should give up so wide a life, a life so variously rich, filled to the full with such passionate love. And Helene had tasted danger without shrinking; how could she return to the pretty stage, the superficial circumscribed life of society?
It was the captain who broke the silence at last.
“Am I in the way?” he asked, looking at his wife.
“No,” said the General, answering for her. “Helene has told me all. I see that she is lost to us —”
“No,” the captain put in quickly; “in a few years’ time the statute of limitations will allow me to go back to France. When the conscience is clear, and a man has broken the law in obedience to ——” he stopped short, as if scorning to justify himself.
“How can you commit new murders, such as I have seen with my own eyes, without remorse?”
“We had no provisions,” the privateer captain retorted calmly.
“But if you had set the men ashore —”
“They would have given the alarm and sent a man-of-war after us, and we should never have seen Chili again.”
“Before France would have given warning to the Spanish admiralty —” began the General.
“But France might take it amiss that a man, with a warrant still out against him, should seize a brig chartered by Bordeaux merchants. And for that matter, have you never fired a shot or so too many in battle?”
The General shrank under the other’s eyes. He said no more, and his daughter looked at him half sadly, half triumphant.
“General,” the privateer continued, in a deep voice, “I have made it a rule to abstract nothing from booty. But even so, my share will be beyond a doubt far larger than your fortune. Permit me to return it to you in another form —”
He drew a pile of banknotes from the piano, and without counting the packets handed a million of francs to the Marquis.
“You can understand,” he said, “that I cannot spend my time in watching vessels pass by to Bordeaux. So unless the dangers of this Bohemian life of ours have some attraction for you, unless you care to see South America and the nights of the tropics, and a bit of fighting now and again for the pleasure of helping to win a triumph for a young nation, or for the name of Simon Bolivar, we must part. The long boat manned with a trustworthy crew is ready for you. And now let us hope that our third meeting will be completely happy.”
“Victor,” said Helene in a dissatisfied tone, “I should like to see a little more of my father.”
“Ten minutes more or less may bring up a French frigate. However, so be it, we shall have a little fun. The men find things dull.”
“Oh, father, go!” cried Helene, “and take these keepsakes from me to my sister and brothers and — mother,” she added. She caught up a handful of jewels and precious stones, folded them in an Indian shawl, and timidly held it out.
“But what shall I say to them from you?” asked he. Her hesitation on the word “mother” seemed to have struck him.
“Oh! can you doubt me? I pray for their happiness every day.”
“Helene,” he began, as he watched her closely, “how if we should not meet again? Shall I never know why you left us?”
“That secret is not mine,” she answered gravely. “Even if I had the right to tell it, perhaps I should not. For ten years I was more miserable than words can say —”
She broke off, and gave her father the presents for her family. The General had acquired tolerably easy views as to booty in the course of a soldier’s career, so he took Helene’s gifts and comforted himself with the reflection that the Parisian captain was sure to wage war against the Spaniards as an honorable man, under the influence of Helene’s pure and high-minded nature. His passion for courage carried all before it. It was ridiculous, he thought, to be squeamish in the matter; so he shook hands cordially with his captor, and kissed Helene, his only daughter, with a soldier’s expansiveness; letting fall a tear on the face with the proud, strong look that once he had loved to see. “The Parisian,” deeply moved, brought the children for his blessing. The parting was over, the last good-bye was a long farewell look, with something of tender regret on either side.
A strange sight to seaward met the General’s eyes. The Saint–Ferdinand was blazing like a huge bonfire. The men told off to sink the Spanish brig had found a cargo of rum on board; and as the Othello was already amply supplied, had lighted a floating bowl of punch on the high seas, by way of a joke; a pleasantry pardonable enough in sailors, who hail any chance excitement as a relief from the apparent monotony of life at sea. As the General went over the side into the long-boat of the Saint–Ferdinand, manned by six vigorous rowers, he could not help looking at the burning vessel, as well as at the daughter who stood by her husband’s side on the stern of the Othello. He saw Helene’s white dress flutter like one more sail in the breeze; he saw the tall, noble figure against a background of sea, queenly still even in the presence of Ocean; and so many memories crowded up in his mind, that, with a soldier’s recklessness of life, he forgot that he was being borne over the grave of the brave Gomez.
A vast column of smoke rising spread like a brown cloud, pierced here and there by fantastic shafts of sunlight. It was a second sky, a murky dome reflecting the glow of the fire as if the under surface had been burnished; but above it soared the unchanging blue of the firmament, a thousand times fairer for the short-lived contrast. The strange hues of the smoke cloud, black and red, tawny and pale by turns, blurred and blending into each other, shrouded the burning vessel as it flared, crackled and groaned; the hissing tongues of flame licked up the rigging, and flashed across the hull, like a rumor of riot flashing along the streets of a city. The burning rum sent up blue flitting lights. Some sea god might have been stirring the furious liquor as a student stirs the joyous flames of punch in an orgy. But in the overpowering sunlight, jealous of the insolent blaze, the colors were scarcely visible, and the smoke was but a film fluttering like a thin scarf in the noonday torrent of light and heat.
The Othello made the most of the little wind she could gain to fly on her new course. Swaying first to one side, then to the other, like a stag beetle on the wing, the fair vessel beat to windward on her zigzag flight to the south. Sometimes she was hidden from sight by the straight column of smoke that flung fantastic shadows across the water, then gracefully she shot out clear of it, and Helene, catching sight of her father, waved her handkerchief for yet one more farewell greeting.
A few more minutes, and the Saint–Ferdinand went down with a bubbling turmoil, at once effaced by the ocean. Nothing of all that had been was left but a smoke cloud hanging in the breeze. The Othello was far away, the long-boat had almost reached land, the cloud came between the frail skiff and the brig, and it was through a break in the swaying smoke that the General caught the last glimpse of Helene. A prophetic vision! Her dress and her white handkerchief stood out against the murky background. Then the brig was not even visible between the green water and the blue sky, and Helene was nothing but an imperceptible speck, a faint graceful line, an angel in heaven, a mental image, a memory.
The Marquis had retrieved his fortunes, when he died, worn out with toil. A few months after his death, in 1833, the Marquise was obliged to take Moina to a watering-place in the Pyrenees, for the capricious child had a wish to see the beautiful mountain scenery. They left the baths, and the following tragical incident occurred on their way home.
“Dear me, mother,” said Moina, “it was very foolish of us not to stay among the mountains a few days longer. It was much nicer there. Did you hear that horrid child moaning all night, and that wretched woman, gabbling away in patois no doubt, for I could not understand a single word she said. What kind of people can they have put in the next room to ours? This is one of the horridest nights I have ever spent in my life.”
“I heard nothing,” said the Marquise, “but I will see the landlady, darling, and engage the next room, and then we shall have the whole suite of rooms to ourselves, and there will be no more noise. How do you feel this morning? Are you tired?”
As she spoke, the Marquise rose and went to Moina’s bedside.
“Let us see,” she said, feeling for the girl’s hand.
“Oh! let me alone, mother,” said Moina; “your fingers are cold.”
She turned her head round on the pillow as she spoke, pettishly, but with such engaging grace, that a mother could scarcely have taken it amiss. Just then a wailing cry echoed through the next room, a faint prolonged cry, that must surely have gone to the heart of any woman who heard it.
“Why, if you heard that all night long, why did you not wake me? We should have —”
A deeper moan than any that had gone before it interrupted the Marquise.
“Some one is dying there,” she cried, and hurried out of the room.
“Send Pauline to me!” called Moina. “I shall get up and dress.”
The Marquise hastened downstairs, and found the landlady in the courtyard with a little group about her, apparently much interested in something that she was telling them.
“Madame, you have put some one in the next room who seems to be very ill indeed —”
“Oh! don’t talk to me about it!” cried the mistress of the house. “I have just sent some one for the mayor. Just imagine it; it is a woman, a poor unfortunate creature that came here last night on foot. She comes from Spain; she has no passport and no money; she was carrying her baby on her back, and the child was dying. I could not refuse to take her in. I went up to see her this morning myself; for when she turned up yesterday, it made me feel dreadfully bad to look at her. Poor soul! she and the child were lying in bed, and both of them at death’s door. ‘Madame,’ says she, pulling a gold ring off her finger, ‘this is all that I have left; take it in payment, it will be enough; I shall not stay here long. Poor little one! we shall die together soon!’ she said, looking at the child. I took her ring, and I asked her who she was, but she never would tell me her name. . . . I have just sent for the doctor and M. le Maire.”
“Why, you must do all that can be done for her,” cried the Marquise. “Good heavens! perhaps it is not too late! I will pay for everything that is necessary ——”
“Ah! my lady, she looks to me uncommonly proud, and I don’t know that she would allow it.”
“I will go to see her at once.”
The Marquise went up forthwith to the stranger’s room, without thinking of the shock that the sight of her widow’s weeds might give to a woman who was said to be dying. At the sight of that dying woman the Marquise turned pale. In spite of the changes wrought by fearful suffering in Helene’s beautiful face, she recognized her eldest daughter.
But Helene, when she saw a woman dressed in black, sat upright in bed with a shriek of horror. Then she sank back; she knew her mother.
“My daughter,” said Mme. d’Aiglemont, “what is to be done? Pauline! . . . Moina! . . . ”
“Nothing now for me,” said Helene faintly. “I had hoped to see my father once more, but your mourning —” she broke off, clutched her child to her heart as if to give it warmth, and kissed its forehead. Then she turned her eyes on her mother, and the Marquise met the old reproach in them, tempered with forgiveness, it is true, but still reproach. She saw it, and would not see it. She forgot that Helene was the child conceived amid tears and despair, the child of duty, the cause of one of the greatest sorrows in her life. She stole to her eldest daughter’s side, remembering nothing but that Helene was her firstborn, the child who had taught her to know the joys of motherhood. The mother’s eyes were full of tears. “Helene, my child! . . . ” she cried, with her arms about her daughter.
Helene was silent. Her own babe had just drawn its last breath on her breast.
Moina came into the room with Pauline, her maid, and the landlady and the doctor. The Marquise was holding her daughter’s ice-cold hand in both of hers, and gazing at her in despair; but the widowed woman, who had escaped shipwreck with but one of all her fair band of children, spoke in a voice that was dreadful to hear. “All this is your work,” she said. “If you had but been for me all that —”
“Moina, go! Go out of the room, all of you!” cried Mme. d’Aiglemont, her shrill tones drowning Helene’s voice. —“For pity’s sake,” she continued, “let us not begin these miserable quarrels again now ——”
“I will be silent,” Helene answered with a preternatural effort. “I am a mother; I know that Moina ought not . . . Where is my child?”
Moina came back, impelled by curiosity.
“Sister,” said the spoiled child, “the doctor —”
“It is all of no use,” said Helene. “Oh! why did I not die as a girl of sixteen when I meant to take my own life? There is no happiness outside the laws. Moina . . . you . . . ”
Her head sank till her face lay against the face of the little one; in her agony she strained her babe to her breast, and died.
“Your sister, Moina,” said Mme. d’Aiglemont, bursting into tears when she reached her room, “your sister meant no doubt to tell you that a girl will never find happiness in a romantic life, in living as nobody else does, and, above all things, far away from her mother.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:47