My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter V.

“In the hurry of the moment I scarce knew what I did. I bade the housekeeper put up every delicacy she had, in order to tempt the invalid, whom yet I hoped to bring back with me to our house. When the carriage was ready I took the good woman with me to show us the exact way, which my coachman professed not to know; for, indeed, they were staying at but a poor kind of place at the back of Leicester Square, of which they had heard, as Clement told me afterwards, from one of the fishermen who had carried them across from the Dutch coast in their disguises as a Friesland peasant and his mother. They had some jewels of value concealed round their persons; but their ready money was all spent before I saw them, and Clement had been unwilling to leave his mother, even for the time necessary to ascertain the best mode of disposing of the diamonds. For, overcome with distress of mind and bodily fatigue, she had reached London only to take to her bed in a sort of low, nervous fever, in which her chief and only idea seemed to be that Clement was about to be taken from her to some prison or other; and if he were out of her sight, though but for a minute, she cried like a child, and could not be pacified or comforted. The landlady was a kind, good woman, and though she but half understood the case, she was truly sorry for them, as foreigners, and the mother sick in a strange land.

“I sent her forwards to request permission for my entrance. In a moment I saw Clement — a tall, elegant young man, in a curious dress of coarse cloth, standing at the open door of a room, and evidently — even before he accosted me — striving to soothe the terrors of his mother inside. I went towards him, and would have taken his hand, but he bent down and kissed mine.

“‘May I come in, madame?’ I asked, looking at the poor sick lady, lying in the dark, dingy bed, her head propped up on coarse and dirty pillows, and gazing with affrighted eyes at all that was going on.

“‘Clement! Clement! come to me!’ she cried; and when he went to the bedside she turned on one side, and took his hand in both of hers, and began stroking it, and looking up in his face. I could scarce keep back my tears.

“He stood there quite still, except that from time to time he spoke to her in a low tone. At last I advanced into the room, so that I could talk to him, without renewing her alarm. I asked for the doctor’s address; for I had heard that they had called in some one, at their landlady’s recommendation: but I could hardly understand Clement’s broken English, and mispronunciation of our proper names, and was obliged to apply to the woman herself. I could not say much to Clement, for his attention was perpetually needed by his mother, who never seemed to perceive that I was there. But I told him not to fear, however long I might be away, for that I would return before night; and, bidding the woman take charge of all the heterogeneous things the housekeeper had put up, and leaving one of my men in the house, who could understand a few words of French, with directions that he was to hold himself at Madame de Crequy’s orders until I sent or gave him fresh commands, I drove off to the doctor’s. What I wanted was his permission to remove Madame de Crequy to my own house, and to learn how it best could be done; for I saw that every movement in the room, every sound except Clement’s voice, brought on a fresh access of trembling and nervous agitation.

“The doctor was, I should think, a clever man; but he had that kind of abrupt manner which people get who have much to do with the lower orders.

“I told him the story of his patient, the interest I had in her, and the wish I entertained of removing her to my own house.

“‘It can’t be done,’ said he. ‘Any change will kill her.’

“‘But it must be done,’ I replied. ‘And it shall not kill her.’

“‘Then I have nothing more to say,’ said he, turning away from the carriage door, and making as though he would go back into the house.

“‘Stop a moment. You must help me; and, if you do, you shall have reason to be glad, for I will give you fifty pounds down with pleasure. If you won’t do it, another shall.’

“He looked at me, then (furtively) at the carriage, hesitated, and then said: ‘You do not mind expense, apparently. I suppose you are a rich lady of quality. Such folks will not stick at such trifles as the life or death of a sick woman to get their own way. I suppose I must e’en help you, for if I don’t, another will.’

“I did not mind what he said, so that he would assist me. I was pretty sure that she was in a state to require opiates; and I had not forgotten Christopher Sly, you may be sure, so I told him what I had in my head. That in the dead of night — the quiet time in the streets — she should be carried in a hospital litter, softly and warmly covered over, from the Leicester Square lodging-house to rooms that I would have in perfect readiness for her. As I planned, so it was done. I let Clement know, by a note, of my design. I had all prepared at home, and we walked about my house as though shod with velvet, while the porter watched at the open door. At last, through the darkness, I saw the lanterns carried by my men, who were leading the little procession. The litter looked like a hearse; on one side walked the doctor, on the other Clement; they came softly and swiftly along. I could not try any farther experiment; we dared not change her clothes; she was laid in the bed in the landlady’s coarse night-gear, and covered over warmly, and left in the shaded, scented room, with a nurse and the doctor watching by her, while I led Clement to the dressing-room adjoining, in which I had had a bed placed for him. Farther than that he would not go; and there I had refreshments brought. Meanwhile, he had shown his gratitude by every possible action (for we none of us dared to speak): he had kneeled at my feet, and kissed my hand, and left it wet with his tears. He had thrown up his arms to Heaven, and prayed earnestly, as I could see by the movement of his lips. I allowed him to relieve himself by these dumb expressions, if I may so call them — and then I left him, and went to my own rooms to sit up for my lord, and tell him what I had done.

“Of course, it was all right; and neither my lord nor I could sleep for wondering how Madame de Crequy would bear her awakening. I had engaged the doctor, to whose face and voice she was accustomed, to remain with her all night: the nurse was experienced, and Clement was within call. But it was with the greatest relief that I heard from my own woman, when she brought me my chocolate, that Madame de Crequy (Monsieur had said) had awakened more tranquil than she had been for many days. To be sure, the whole aspect of the bed-chamber must have been more familiar to her than the miserable place where I had found her, and she must have intuitively felt herself among friends.

“My lord was scandalized at Clement’s dress, which, after the first moment of seeing him I had forgotten, in thinking of other things, and for which I had not prepared Lord Ludlow. He sent for his own tailor, and bade him bring patterns of stuffs, and engage his men to work night and day till Clement could appear as became his rank. In short, in a few days so much of the traces of their flight were removed, that we had almost forgotten the terrible causes of it, and rather felt as if they had come on a visit to us than that they had been compelled to fly their country. Their diamonds, too, were sold well by my lord’s agents, though the London shops were stocked with jewellery, and such portable valuables, some of rare and curious fashion, which were sold for half their real value by emigrants who could not afford to wait. Madame de Crequy was recovering her health, although her strength was sadly gone, and she would never be equal to such another flight, as the perilous one which she had gone through, and to which she could not bear the slightest reference. For some time things continued in this state — the De Crequys still our honoured visitors — many houses besides our own, even among our own friends, open to receive the poor flying nobility of France, driven from their country by the brutal republicans, and every freshly-arrived emigrant bringing new tales of horror, as if these revolutionists were drunk with blood, and mad to devise new atrocities. One day Clement — I should tell you he had been presented to our good King George and the sweet Queen, and they had accosted him most graciously, and his beauty and elegance, and some of the circumstances attendant on his flight, made him be received in the world quite like a hero of romance; he might have been on intimate terms in many a distinguished house, had he cared to visit much; but he accompanied my lord and me with an air of indifference and languor, which I sometimes fancied made him be all the more sought after: Monkshaven (that was the title my eldest son bore) tried in vain to interest him in all young men’s sports. But no! it was the same through all. His mother took far more interest in the on-dits of the London world, into which she was far too great an invalid to venture, than he did in the absolute events themselves, in which he might have been an actor. One day, as I was saying, an old Frenchman of a humble class presented himself to our servants, several of them, understood French; and through Medlicott, I learnt that he was in some way connected with the De Crequys; not with their Paris-life; but I fancy he had been intendant of their estates in the country; estates which were more useful as hunting-grounds than as adding to their income. However, there was the old man and with him, wrapped round his person, he had brought the long parchment rolls, and deeds relating to their property. These he would deliver up to none but Monsieur de Crequy, the rightful owner; and Clement was out with Monkshaven, so the old man waited; and when Clement came in, I told him of the steward’s arrival, and how he had been cared for by my people. Clement went directly to see him. He was a long time away, and I was waiting for him to drive out with me, for some purpose or another, I scarce know what, but I remember I was tired of waiting, and was just in the act of ringing the bell to desire that he might be reminded of his engagement with me, when he came in, his face as white as the powder in his hair, his beautiful eyes dilated with horror. I saw that he had heard something that touched him even more closely than the usual tales which every fresh emigrant brought.

“‘What is it, Clement?’ I asked.

“He clasped his hands, and looked as though he tried to speak, but could not bring out the words.

“‘They have guillotined my uncle!’ said he at last. Now, I knew that there was a Count de Crequy; but I had always understood that the elder branch held very little communication with him; in fact, that he was a vaurien of some kind, and rather a disgrace than otherwise to the family. So, perhaps, I was hard-hearted but I was a little surprised at this excess of emotion, till I saw that peculiar look in his eyes that many people have when there is more terror in their hearts than they dare put into words. He wanted me to understand something without his saying it; but how could I? I had never heard of a Mademoiselle de Crequy.

“‘Virginie!’ at last he uttered. In an instant I understood it all, and remembered that, if Urian had lived, he too might have been in love.

“‘Your uncle’s daughter?’ I inquired.

“‘My cousin,’ he replied.

“I did not say, ‘your betrothed,’ but I had no doubt of it. I was mistaken, however.

“‘O madame!’ he continued, ‘her mother died long ago — her father now — and she is in daily fear — alone, deserted —’

“‘Is she in the Abbaye?’ asked I.

“‘No! she is in hiding with the widow of her father’s old concierge. Any day they may search the house for aristocrats. They are seeking them everywhere. Then, not her life alone, but that of the old woman, her hostess, is sacrificed. The old woman knows this, and trembles with fear. Even if she is brave enough to be faithful, her fears would betray her, should the house be searched. Yet, there is no one to help Virginie to escape. She is alone in Paris.’

“I saw what was in his mind. He was fretting and chafing to go to his cousin’s assistance; but the thought of his mother restrained him. I would not have kept back Urian from such on errand at such a time. How should I restrain him? And yet, perhaps, I did wrong in not urging the chances of danger more. Still, if it was danger to him, was it not the same or even greater danger to her? — for the French spared neither age nor sex in those wicked days of terror. So I rather fell in with his wish, and encouraged him to think how best and most prudently it might be fulfilled; never doubting, as I have said, that he and his cousin were troth-plighted.

“But when I went to Madame de Crequy — after he had imparted his, or rather our plan to her — I found out my mistake. She, who was in general too feeble to walk across the room save slowly, and with a stick, was going from end to end with quick, tottering steps; and, if now and then she sank upon a chair, it seemed as if she could not rest, for she was up again in a moment, pacing along, wringing her hands, and speaking rapidly to herself. When she saw me, she stopped: ‘Madame,’ she said, ‘you have lost your own boy. You might have left me mine.’

“I was so astonished — I hardly knew what to say. I had spoken to Clement as if his mother’s consent were secure (as I had felt my own would have been if Urian had been alive to ask it). Of coarse, both he and I knew that his mother’s consent must be asked and obtained, before he could leave her to go on such an undertaking; but, somehow, my blood always rose at the sight or sound of danger; perhaps, because my life had been so peaceful. Poor Madame de Crequy! it was otherwise with her; she despaired while I hoped, and Clement trusted.

“‘Dear Madame de Crequy,’ said I, ‘he will return safely to us; every precaution shall be taken, that either he or you, or my lord, or Monkshaven can think of; but he cannot leave a girl — his nearest relation save you — his betrothed, is she not?’

“‘His betrothed!’ cried she, now at the utmost pitch of her excitement. ‘Virginie betrothed to Clement? — no! thank heaven, not so bad as that! Yet it might have been. But mademoiselle scorned my son! She would have nothing to do with him. Now is the time for him to have nothing to do with her!”

“Clement had entered at the door behind his mother as she thus spoke. His face was set and pale, till it looked as gray and immovable as if it had been carved in stone. He came forward and stood before his mother. She stopped her walk, threw back her haughty head, and the two looked each other steadily in the face. After a minute or two in this attitude, her proud and resolute gaze never flinching or wavering, he went down upon one knee, and, taking her hand — her hard, stony hand, which never closed on his, but remained straight and stiff:

“‘Mother,’ he pleaded, ‘withdraw your prohibition. Let me go!’

“‘What were her words?’ Madame de Crequy replied, slowly, as if forcing her memory to the extreme of accuracy. ‘My cousin,’ she said, ‘when I marry, I marry a man, not a petit-maitre. I marry a man who, whatever his rank may be will add dignity to the human race by his virtues, and not be content to live in an effeminate court on the traditions of past grandeur.’ She borrowed her words from the infamous Jean–Jacques Rousseau, the friend of her scarce less infamous father — nay! I will say it — if not her words, she borrowed her principles. And my son to request her to marry him!’

“‘It was my father’s written wish,’ said Clement.

“‘But did you not love her? You plead your father’s words — words written twelve years before — and as if that were your reason for being indifferent to my dislike to the alliance. But you requested her to marry you — and she refused you with insolent contempt; and now you are ready to leave me — leave me desolate in a foreign land —’

“‘Desolate! my mother! and the Countess Ludlow stands there!’

“‘Pardon, madame! But all the earth, though it were full of kind hearts, is but a desolation and a desert place to a mother when her only child is absent. And you, Clement, would leave me for this Virginie — this degenerate De Crequy, tainted with the atheism of the Encyclopedistes! She is only reaping some of the fruit of the harvest whereof her friends have sown the seed. Let her alone! Doubtless she has friends — it may be lovers — among these demons, who, under the cry of liberty, commit every licence. Let her alone, Clement! She refused you with scorn: be too proud to notice her new.’

“‘Mother, I cannot think of myself; only of her.’

“‘Think of me, then! I, your mother, forbid you to go.’

“Clement bowed low, and went out of the room instantly, as one blinded. She saw his groping movement, and, for an instant, I think her heart was touched. But she turned to me, and tried to exculpate her past violence by dilating upon her wrongs, and they certainly were many. The Count, her husband’s younger brother, had invariably tried to make mischief between husband and wife. He had been the cleverer man of the two, and had possessed extraordinary influence over her husband. She suspected him of having instigated that clause in her husband’s will, by which the Marquis expressed his wish for the marriage of the cousins. The Count had had some interest in the management of the De Crequy property during her son’s minority. Indeed, I remembered then, that it was through Count de Crequy that Lord Ludlow had first heard of the apartment which we afterwards took in the Hotel de Crequy; and then the recollection of a past feeling came distinctly out of the mist, as it were; and I called to mind how, when we first took up our abode in the Hotel de Crequy, both Lord Ludlow and I imagined that the arrangement was displeasing to our hostess; and how it had taken us a considerable time before we had been able to establish relations of friendship with her. Years after our visit, she began to suspect that Clement (whom she could not forbid to visit at his uncle’s house, considering the terms on which his father had been with his brother; though she herself never set foot over the Count de Crequy’s threshold) was attaching himself to mademoiselle, his cousin; and she made cautious inquiries as to the appearance, character, and disposition of the young lady. Mademoiselle was not handsome, they said; but of a fine figure, and generally considered as having a very noble and attractive presence. In character she was daring and wilful (said one set); original and independent (said another). She was much indulged by her father, who had given her something of a man’s education, and selected for her intimate friend a young lady below her in rank, one of the Bureaucracie, a Mademoiselle Necker, daughter of the Minister of Finance. Mademoiselle de Crequy was thus introduced into all the free-thinking salons of Paris; among people who were always full of plans for subverting society. ‘And did Clement affect such people?’ Madame de Crequy had asked with some anxiety. No! Monsieur de Crequy had neither eyes nor ears, nor thought for anything but his cousin, while she was by. And she? She hardly took notice of his devotion, so evident to every one else. The proud creature! But perhaps that was her haughty way of concealing what she felt. And so Madame de Crequy listened, and questioned, and learnt nothing decided, until one day she surprised Clement with the note in his hand, of which she remembered the stinging words so well, in which Virginie had said, in reply to a proposal Clement had sent her through her father, that ‘When she married she married a man, not a petit-maitre.’

“Clement was justly indignant at the insulting nature of the answer Virginie had sent to a proposal, respectful in its tone, and which was, after all, but the cool, hardened lava over a burning heart. He acquiesced in his mother’s desire, that he should not again present himself in his uncle’s salons; but he did not forget Virginie, though he never mentioned her name.

“Madame de Crequy and her son were among the earliest proscrits, as they were of the strongest possible royalists, and aristocrats, as it was the custom of the horrid Sansculottes to term those who adhered to the habits of expression and action in which it was their pride to have been educated. They had left Paris some weeks before they had arrived in England, and Clement’s belief at the time of quitting the Hotel de Crequy had certainly been, that his uncle was not merely safe, but rather a popular man with the party in power. And, as all communication having relation to private individuals of a reliable kind was intercepted, Monsieur de Crequy had felt but little anxiety for his uncle and cousin, in comparison with what he did for many other friends of very different opinions in politics, until the day when he was stunned by the fatal information that even his progressive uncle was guillotined, and learnt that his cousin was imprisoned by the licence of the mob, whose rights (as she called them) she was always advocating.

“When I had heard all this story, I confess I lost in sympathy for Clement what I gained for his mother. Virginie’s life did not seem to me worth the risk that Clement’s would run. But when I saw him — sad, depressed, nay, hopeless — going about like one oppressed by a heavy dream which he cannot shake off; caring neither to eat, drink, nor sleep, yet bearing all with silent dignity, and even trying to force a poor, faint smile when he caught my anxious eyes; I turned round again, and wondered how Madame de Crequy could resist this mute pleading of her son’s altered appearance. As for my Lord Ludlow and Monkshaven, as soon as they understood the case, they were indignant that any mother should attempt to keep a son out of honourable danger; and it was honourable, and a clear duty (according to them) to try to save the life of a helpless orphan girl, his next of kin. None but a Frenchman, said my lord, would hold himself bound by an old woman’s whimsies and fears, even though she were his mother. As it was, he was chafing himself to death under the restraint. If he went, to be sure, the wretches might make an end of him, as they had done of many a fine fellow: but my lord would take heavy odds, that, instead of being guillotined, he would save the girl, and bring her safe to England, just desperately in love with her preserver, and then we would have a jolly wedding down at Monkshaven. My lord repeated his opinion so often that it became a certain prophecy in his mind of what was to take place; and, one day seeing Clement look even paler and thinner than he had ever done before, he sent a message to Madame de Crequy, requesting permission to speak to her in private.

“‘For, by George!’ said he, ‘she shall hear my opinion, and not let that lad of hers kill himself by fretting. He’s too good for that, if he had been an English lad, he would have been off to his sweetheart long before this, without saying with your leave or by your leave; but being a Frenchman, he is all for AEneas and filial piety — filial fiddle-sticks!’ (My lord had run away to sea, when a boy, against his father’s consent, I am sorry to say; and, as all had ended well, and he had come back to find both his parents alive, I do not think he was ever as much aware of his fault as he might have been under other circumstances.) ‘No, my lady,’ he went on, ‘don’t come with me. A woman can manage a man best when he has a fit of obstinacy, and a man can persuade a woman out of her tantrums, when all her own sex, the whole army of them, would fail. Allow me to go alone to my tete-a-tete with madame.”

“What he said, what passed, he never could repeat; but he came back graver than he went. However, the point was gained; Madame de Crequy withdrew her prohibition, and had given him leave to tell Clement as much.

“‘But she is an old Cassandra,’ said he. ‘Don’t let the lad be much with her; her talk would destroy the courage of the bravest man; she is so given over to superstition.’ Something that she had said had touched a chord in my lord’s nature which he inherited from his Scotch ancestors. Long afterwards, I heard what this was. Medlicott told me.

“However, my lord shook off all fancies that told against the fulfilment of Clement’s wishes. All that afternoon we three sat together, planning; and Monkshaven passed in and out, executing our commissions, and preparing everything. Towards nightfall all was ready for Clement’s start on his journey towards the coast.

“Madame had declined seeing any of us since my lord’s stormy interview with her. She sent word that she was fatigued, and desired repose. But, of course, before Clement set off, he was bound to wish her farewell, and to ask for her blessing. In order to avoid an agitating conversation between mother and son, my lord and I resolved to be present at the interview. Clement was already in his travelling-dress, that of a Norman fisherman, which Monkshaven had, with infinite trouble, discovered in the possession of one of the emigres who thronged London, and who had made his escape from the shores of France in this disguise. Clement’s plan was, to go down to the coast of Sussex, and get some of the fishing or smuggling boats to take him across to the French coast near Dieppe. There again he would have to change his dress. Oh, it was so well planned! His mother was startled by his disguise (of which we had not thought to forewarn her) as he entered her apartment. And either that, or the being suddenly roused from the heavy slumber into which she was apt to fall when she was left alone, gave her manner an air of wildness that was almost like insanity.

“‘Go, go!’ she said to him, almost pushing him away as he knelt to kiss her hand. ‘Virginie is beckoning to you, but you don’t see what kind of a bed it is —’

“‘Clement, make haste!’ said my lord, in a hurried manner, as if to interrupt madame. ‘The time is later than I thought, and you must not miss the morning’s tide. Bid your mother good-bye at once, and let us be off.’ For my lord and Monkshaven were to ride with him to an inn near the shore, from whence he was to walk to his destination. My lord almost took him by the arm to pull him away; and they were gone, and I was left alone with Madame de Crequy. When she heard the horses’ feet, she seemed to find out the truth, as if for the first time. She set her teeth together. ‘He has left me for her!’ she almost screamed. ‘Left me for her!’ she kept muttering; and then, as the wild look came back into her eyes, she said, almost with exultation, ‘But I did not give him my blessing!’”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55