My Lady Ludlow, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter VI.

“All night Madame de Crequy raved in delirium. If I could I would have sent for Clement back again. I did send off one man, but I suppose my directions were confused, or they were wrong, for he came back after my lord’s return, on the following afternoon. By this time Madame de Crequy was quieter: she was, indeed, asleep from exhaustion when Lord Ludlow and Monkshaven came in. They were in high spirits, and their hopefulness brought me round to a less dispirited state. All had gone well: they had accompanied Clement on foot along the shore, until they had met with a lugger, which my lord had hailed in good nautical language. The captain had responded to these freemason terms by sending a boat to pick up his passenger, and by an invitation to breakfast sent through a speaking-trumpet. Monkshaven did not approve of either the meal or the company, and had returned to the inn, but my lord had gone with Clement and breakfasted on board, upon grog, biscuit, fresh-caught fish —‘the best breakfast he ever ate,’ he said, but that was probably owing to the appetite his night’s ride had given him. However, his good fellowship had evidently won the captain’s heart, and Clement had set sail under the best auspices. It was agreed that I should tell all this to Madame de Crequy, if she inquired; otherwise, it would be wiser not to renew her agitation by alluding to her son’s journey.

“I sat with her constantly for many days; but she never spoke of Clement. She forced herself to talk of the little occurrences of Parisian society in former days: she tried to be conversational and agreeable, and to betray no anxiety or even interest in the object of Clement’s journey; and, as far as unremitting efforts could go, she succeeded. But the tones of her voice were sharp and yet piteous, as if she were in constant pain; and the glance of her eye hurried and fearful, as if she dared not let it rest on any object.

“In a week we heard of Clement’s safe arrival on the French coast. He sent a letter to this effect by the captain of the smuggler, when the latter returned. We hoped to hear again; but week after week elapsed, and there was no news of Clement. I had told Lord Ludlow, in Madame de Crequy’s presence, as he and I had arranged, of the note I had received from her son, informing us of his landing in France. She heard, but she took no notice, and evidently began to wonder that we did not mention any further intelligence of him in the same manner before her; and daily I began to fear that her pride would give way, and that she would supplicate for news before I had any to give her.

“One morning, on my awakening, my maid told me that Madame de Crequy had passed a wretched night, and had bidden Medlicott (whom, as understanding French, and speaking it pretty well, though with that horrid German accent, I had put about her) request that I would go to madame’s room as soon as I was dressed.

“I knew what was coming, and I trembled all the time they were doing my hair, and otherwise arranging me. I was not encouraged by my lord’s speeches. He had heard the message, and kept declaring that he would rather be shot than have to tell her that there was no news of her son; and yet he said, every now and then, when I was at the lowest pitch of uneasiness, that he never expected to hear again: that some day soon we should see him walking in and introducing Mademoiselle de Crequy to us.

“However at last I was ready, and go I must.

“Her eyes were fixed on the door by which I entered. I went up to the bedside. She was not rouged — she had left it off now for several days — she no longer attempted to keep up the vain show of not feeling, and loving, and fearing.

“For a moment or two she did not speak, and I was glad of the respite.

“‘Clement?’ she said at length, covering her mouth with a handkerchief the minute she had spoken, that I might not see it quiver.

“‘There has been no news since the first letter, saying how well the voyage was performed, and how safely he had landed — near Dieppe, you know,’ I replied as cheerfully as possible. ‘My lord does not expect that we shall have another letter; he thinks that we shall see him soon.’

“There was no answer. As I looked, uncertain whether to do or say more, she slowly turned herself in bed, and lay with her face to the wall; and, as if that did not shut out the light of day and the busy, happy world enough, she put out her trembling hands, and covered her face with her handkerchief. There was no violence: hardly any sound.

“I told her what my lord had said about Clement’s coming in some day, and taking us all by surprise. I did not believe it myself, but it was just possible — and I had nothing else to say. Pity, to one who was striving so hard to conceal her feelings, would have been impertinent. She let me talk; but she did not reply. She knew that my words were vain and idle, and had no root in my belief; as well as I did myself.

“I was very thankful when Medlicott came in with Madame’s breakfast, and gave me an excuse for leaving.

“But I think that conversation made me feel more anxious and impatient than ever. I felt almost pledged to Madame de Crequy for the fulfilment of the vision I had held out. She had taken entirely to her bed by this time: not from illness, but because she had no hope within her to stir her up to the effort of dressing. In the same way she hardly cared for food. She had no appetite — why eat to prolong a life of despair? But she let Medlicott feed her, sooner than take the trouble of resisting.

“And so it went on — for weeks, months — I could hardly count the time, it seemed so long. Medlicott told me she noticed a preternatural sensitiveness of ear in Madame de Crequy, induced by the habit of listening silently for the slightest unusual sound in the house. Medlicott was always a minute watcher of any one whom she cared about; and, one day, she made me notice by a sign madame’s acuteness of hearing, although the quick expectation was but evinced for a moment in the turn of the eye, the hushed breath — and then, when the unusual footstep turned into my lord’s apartments, the soft quivering sigh, and the closed eyelids.

“At length the intendant of the De Crequy estates — the old man, you will remember, whose information respecting Virginie de Crequy first gave Clement the desire to return to Paris — came to St. James’s Square, and begged to speak to me. I made haste to go down to him in the housekeeper’s room, sooner than that he should be ushered into mine, for fear of madame hearing any sound.

“The old man stood — I see him now — with his hat held before him in both his hands; he slowly bowed till his face touched it when I came in. Such long excess of courtesy augured ill. He waited for me to speak.

“‘Have you any intelligence?’ I inquired. He had been often to the house before, to ask if we had received any news; and once or twice I had seen him, but this was the first time he had begged to see me.

“‘Yes, madame,’ he replied, still standing with his head bent down, like a child in disgrace.

“‘And it is bad!’ I exclaimed.

“‘It is bad.’ For a moment I was angry at the cold tone in which my words were echoed; but directly afterwards I saw the large, slow, heavy tears of age falling down the old man’s cheeks, and on to the sleeves of his poor, threadbare coat.

“I asked him how he had heard it: it seemed as though I could not all at once bear to hear what it was. He told me that the night before, in crossing Long Acre, he had stumbled upon an old acquaintance of his; one who, like himself had been a dependent upon the De Crequy family, but had managed their Paris affairs, while Flechier had taken charge of their estates in the country. Both were now emigrants, and living on the proceeds of such small available talents as they possessed. Flechier, as I knew, earned a very fair livelihood by going about to dress salads for dinner parties. His compatriot, Le Febvre, had begun to give a few lessons as a dancing-master. One of them took the other home to his lodgings; and there, when their most immediate personal adventures had been hastily talked over, came the inquiry from Flechier as to Monsieur de Crequy

“‘Clement was dead — guillotined. Virginie was dead — guillotined.’

“When Flechier had told me thus much, he could not speak for sobbing; and I, myself, could hardly tell how to restrain my tears sufficiently, until I could go to my own room and be at liberty to give way. He asked my leave to bring in his friend Le Febvre, who was walking in the square, awaiting a possible summons to tell his story. I heard afterwards a good many details, which filled up the account, and made me feel — which brings me back to the point I started from — how unfit the lower orders are for being trusted indiscriminately with the dangerous powers of education. I have made a long preamble, but now I am coming to the moral of my story.”

My lady was trying to shake off the emotion which she evidently felt in recurring to this sad history of Monsieur de Crequy’s death. She came behind me, and arranged my pillows, and then, seeing I had been crying — for, indeed, I was weak-spirited at the time, and a little served to unloose my tears — she stooped down, and kissed my forehead, and said “Poor child!” almost as if she thanked me for feeling that old grief of hers.

“Being once in France, it was no difficult thing for Clement to get into Paris. The difficulty in those days was to leave, not to enter. He came in dressed as a Norman peasant, in charge of a load of fruit and vegetables, with which one of the Seine barges was freighted. He worked hard with his companions in landing and arranging their produce on the quays; and then, when they dispersed to get their breakfasts at some of the estaminets near the old Marche aux Fleurs, he sauntered up a street which conducted him, by many an odd turn, through the Quartier Latin to a horrid back alley, leading out of the Rue l’Ecole de Medecine; some atrocious place, as I have heard, not far from the shadow of that terrible Abbaye, where so many of the best blood of France awaited their deaths. But here some old man lived, on whose fidelity Clement thought that he might rely. I am not sure if he had not been gardener in those very gardens behind the Hotel Crequy where Clement and Urian used to play together years before. But whatever the old man’s dwelling might be, Clement was only too glad to reach it, you may be sure, he had been kept in Normandy, in all sorts of disguises, for many days after landing in Dieppe, through the difficulty of entering Paris unsuspected by the many ruffians who were always on the look-out for aristocrats.

“The old gardener was, I believe, both faithful and tried, and sheltered Clement in his garret as well as might be. Before he could stir out, it was necessary to procure a fresh disguise, and one more in character with an inhabitant of Paris than that of a Norman carter was procured; and after waiting indoors for one or two days, to see if any suspicion was excited, Clement set off to discover Virginie.

“He found her at the old concierge’s dwelling. Madame Babette was the name of this woman, who must have been a less faithful — or rather, perhaps, I should say, a more interested — friend to her guest than the old gardener Jaques was to Clement.

“I have seen a miniature of Virginie, which a French lady of quality happened to have in her possession at the time of her flight from Paris, and which she brought with her to England unwittingly; for it belonged to the Count de Crequy, with whom she was slightly acquainted. I should fancy from it, that Virginie was taller and of a more powerful figure for a woman than her cousin Clement was for a man. Her dark-brown hair was arranged in short curls — the way of dressing the hair announced the politics of the individual, in those days, just as patches did in my grandmother’s time; and Virginie’s hair was not to my taste, or according to my principles: it was too classical. Her large, black eyes looked out at you steadily. One cannot judge of the shape of a nose from a full-face miniature, but the nostrils were clearly cut and largely opened. I do not fancy her nose could have been pretty; but her mouth had a character all its own, and which would, I think, have redeemed a plainer face. It was wide, and deep set into the cheeks at the corners; the upper lip was very much arched, and hardly closed over the teeth; so that the whole face looked (from the serious, intent look in the eyes, and the sweet intelligence of the mouth) as if she were listening eagerly to something to which her answer was quite ready, and would come out of those red, opening lips as soon as ever you had done speaking, and you longed to know what she would say.

“Well: this Virginie de Crequy was living with Madame Babette in the conciergerie of an old French inn, somewhere to the north of Paris, so, far enough from Clement’s refuge. The inn had been frequented by farmers from Brittany and such kind of people, in the days when that sort of intercourse went on between Paris and the provinces which had nearly stopped now. Few Bretons came near it now, and the inn had fallen into the hands of Madame Babette’s brother, as payment for a bad wine debt of the last proprietor. He put his sister and her child in, to keep it open, as it were, and sent all the people he could to occupy the half-furnished rooms of the house. They paid Babette for their lodging every morning as they went out to breakfast, and returned or not as they chose, at night. Every three days, the wine-merchant or his son came to Madame Babette, and she accounted to them for the money she had received. She and her child occupied the porter’s office (in which the lad slept at nights) and a little miserable bed-room which opened out of it, and received all the light and air that was admitted through the door of communication, which was half glass. Madame Babette must have had a kind of attachment for the De Crequys — her De Crequys, you understand — Virginie’s father, the Count; for, at some risk to herself, she had warned both him and his daughter of the danger impending over them. But he, infatuated, would not believe that his dear Human Race could ever do him harm; and, as long as he did not fear, Virginie was not afraid. It was by some ruse, the nature of which I never heard, that Madame Babette induced Virginie to come to her abode at the very hour in which the Count had been recognized in the streets, and hurried off to the Lanterne. It was after Babette had got her there, safe shut up in the little back den, that she told her what had befallen her father. From that day, Virginie had never stirred out of the gates, or crossed the threshold of the porter’s lodge. I do not say that Madame Babette was tired of her continual presence, or regretted the impulse which made her rush to the De Crequy’s well-known house — after being compelled to form one of the mad crowds that saw the Count de Crequy seized and hung — and hurry his daughter out, through alleys and backways, until at length she had the orphan safe in her own dark sleeping-room, and could tell her tale of horror: but Madame Babette was poorly paid for her porter’s work by her avaricious brother; and it was hard enough to find food for herself and her growing boy; and, though the poor girl ate little enough, I dare say, yet there seemed no end to the burthen that Madame Babette had imposed upon herself: the De Crequys were plundered, ruined, had become an extinct race, all but a lonely friendless girl, in broken health and spirits; and, though she lent no positive encouragement to his suit, yet, at the time, when Clement reappeared in Paris, Madame Babette was beginning to think that Virginie might do worse than encourage the attentions of Monsieur Morin Fils, her nephew, and the wine merchant’s son. Of course, he and his father had the entree into the conciergerie of the hotel that belonged to them, in right of being both proprietors and relations. The son, Morin, had seen Virginie in this manner. He was fully aware that she was far above him in rank, and guessed from her whole aspect that she had lost her natural protectors by the terrible guillotine; but he did not know her exact name or station, nor could he persuade his aunt to tell him. However, he fell head over ears in love with her, whether she were princess or peasant; and though at first there was something about her which made his passionate love conceal itself with shy, awkward reserve, and then made it only appear in the guise of deep, respectful devotion; yet, by-and-by — by the same process of reasoning, I suppose, that his aunt had gone through even before him — Jean Morin began to let Hope oust Despair from his heart. Sometimes he thought — perhaps years hence — that solitary, friendless lady, pent up in squalor, might turn to him as to a friend and comforter — and then — and then —. Meanwhile Jean Morin was most attentive to his aunt, whom he had rather slighted before. He would linger over the accounts; would bring her little presents; and, above all, he made a pet and favourite of Pierre, the little cousin, who could tell him about all the ways of going on of Mam’selle Cannes, as Virginie was called. Pierre was thoroughly aware of the drift and cause of his cousin’s inquiries; and was his ardent partisan, as I have heard, even before Jean Morin had exactly acknowledged his wishes to himself.

“It must have required some patience and much diplomacy, before Clement de Crequy found out the exact place where his cousin was hidden. The old gardener took the cause very much to heart; as, judging from my recollections, I imagine he would have forwarded any fancy, however wild, of Monsieur Clement’s. (I will tell you afterwards how I came to know all these particulars so well.)

“After Clement’s return, on two succeeding days, from his dangerous search, without meeting with any good result, Jacques entreated Monsieur de Crequy to let him take it in hand. He represented that he, as gardener for the space of twenty years and more at the Hotel de Crequy, had a right to be acquainted with all the successive concierges at the Count’s house; that he should not go among them as a stranger, but as an old friend, anxious to renew pleasant intercourse; and that if the Intendant’s story, which he had told Monsieur de Crequy in England, was true, that mademoiselle was in hiding at the house of a former concierge, why, something relating to her would surely drop out in the course of conversation. So he persuaded Clement to remain indoors, while he set off on his round, with no apparent object but to gossip.

“At night he came home — having seen mademoiselle. He told Clement much of the story relating to Madame Babette that I have told to you. Of course, he had heard nothing of the ambitious hopes of Morin Fils — hardly of his existence, I should think. Madame Babette had received him kindly; although, for some time, she had kept him standing in the carriage gateway outside her door. But, on his complaining of the draught and his rheumatism, she had asked him in: first looking round with some anxiety, to see who was in the room behind her. No one was there when he entered and sat down. But, in a minute or two, a tall, thin young lady, with great, sad eyes, and pale cheeks, came from the inner room, and, seeing him, retired. ‘It is Mademoiselle Cannes,’ said Madame Babette, rather unnecessarily; for, if he had not been on the watch for some sign of Mademoiselle de Crequy, he would hardly have noticed the entrance and withdrawal.

“Clement and the good old gardener were always rather perplexed by Madame Babette’s evident avoidance of all mention of the De Crequy family. If she were so much interested in one member as to be willing to undergo the pains and penalties of a domiciliary visit, it was strange that she never inquired after the existence of her charge’s friends and relations from one who might very probably have heard something of them. They settled that Madame Babette must believe that the Marquise and Clement were dead; and admired her for her reticence in never speaking of Virginie. The truth was, I suspect, that she was so desirous of her nephews success by this time, that she did not like letting any one into the secret of Virginie’s whereabouts who might interfere with their plan. However, it was arranged between Clement and his humble friend, that the former, dressed in the peasant’s clothes in which he had entered Paris, but smartened up in one or two particulars, as if, although a countryman, he had money to spare, should go and engage a sleeping-room in the old Breton Inn; where, as I told you, accommodation for the night was to be had. This was accordingly done, without exciting Madame Babette’s suspicions, for she was unacquainted with the Normandy accent, and consequently did not perceive the exaggeration of it which Monsieur de Crequy adopted in order to disguise his pure Parisian. But after he had for two nights slept in a queer dark closet, at the end of one of the numerous short galleries in the Hotel Duguesclin, and paid his money for such accommodation each morning at the little bureau under the window of the conciergerie, he found himself no nearer to his object. He stood outside in the gateway: Madame Babette opened a pane in her window, counted out the change, gave polite thanks, and shut to the pane with a clack, before he could ever find out what to say that might be the means of opening a conversation. Once in the streets, he was in danger from the bloodthirsty mob, who were ready in those days to hunt to death every one who looked like a gentleman, as an aristocrat: and Clement, depend upon it, looked a gentleman, whatever dress he wore. Yet it was unwise to traverse Paris to his old friend the gardener’s grenier, so he had to loiter about, where I hardly know. Only he did leave the Hotel Duguesclin, and he did not go to old Jacques, and there was not another house in Paris open to him. At the end of two days, he had made out Pierre’s existence; and he began to try to make friends with the lad. Pierre was too sharp and shrewd not to suspect something from the confused attempts at friendliness. It was not for nothing that the Norman farmer lounged in the court and doorway, and brought home presents of galette. Pierre accepted the galette, reciprocated the civil speeches, but kept his eyes open. Once, returning home pretty late at night, he surprised the Norman studying the shadows on the blind, which was drawn down when Madame Babette’s lamp was lighted. On going in, he found Mademoiselle Cannes with his mother, sitting by the table, and helping in the family mending.

“Pierre was afraid that the Norman had some view upon the money which his mother, as concierge, collected for her brother. But the money was all safe next evening, when his cousin, Monsieur Morin Fils, came to collect it. Madame Babette asked her nephew to sit down, and skilfully barred the passage to the inner door, so that Virginie, had she been ever so much disposed, could not have retreated. She sat silently sewing. All at once the little party were startled by a very sweet tenor voice, just close to the street window, singing one of the airs out of Beaumarchais’ operas, which, a few years before, had been popular all over Paris. But after a few moments of silence, and one or two remarks, the talking went on again. Pierre, however, noticed an increased air of abstraction in Virginie, who, I suppose, was recurring to the last time that she had heard the song, and did not consider, as her cousin had hoped she would have done, what were the words set to the air, which he imagined she would remember, and which would have told her so much. For, only a few years before, Adam’s opera of Richard le Roi had made the story of the minstrel Blondel and our English Coeur de Lion familiar to all the opera-going part of the Parisian public, and Clement had bethought him of establishing a communication with Virginie by some such means.

“The next night, about the same hour, the same voice was singing outside the window again. Pierre, who had been irritated by the proceeding the evening before, as it had diverted Virginie’s attention from his cousin, who had been doing his utmost to make himself agreeable, rushed out to the door, just as the Norman was ringing the bell to be admitted for the night. Pierre looked up and down the street; no one else was to be seen. The next day, the Norman mollified him somewhat by knocking at the door of the conciergerie, and begging Monsieur Pierre’s acceptance of some knee-buckles, which had taken the country farmer’s fancy the day before, as he had been gazing into the shops, but which, being too small for his purpose, he took the liberty of offering to Monsieur Pierre. Pierre, a French boy, inclined to foppery, was charmed, ravished by the beauty of the present and with monsieur’s goodness, and he began to adjust them to his breeches immediately, as well as he could, at least, in his mother’s absence. The Norman, whom Pierre kept carefully on the outside of the threshold, stood by, as if amused at the boy’s eagerness.

“‘Take care,’ said he, clearly and distinctly; ‘take care, my little friend, lest you become a fop; and, in that case, some day, years hence, when your heart is devoted to some young lady, she may be inclined to say to you’— here he raised his voice —‘No, thank you; when I marry, I marry a man, not a petit-maitre; I marry a man, who, whatever his position may be, will add dignity to the human race by his virtues.’ Farther than that in his quotation Clement dared not go. His sentiments (so much above the apparent occasion) met with applause from Pierre, who liked to contemplate himself in the light of a lover, even though it should be a rejected one, and who hailed the mention of the words ‘virtues’ and ‘dignity of the human race’ as belonging to the cant of a good citizen.

“But Clement was more anxious to know how the invisible Lady took his speech. There was no sign at the time. But when he returned at night, he heard a voice, low singing, behind Madame Babette, as she handed him his candle, the very air he had sung without effect for two nights past. As if he had caught it up from her murmuring voice, he sang it loudly and clearly as he crossed the court.

“‘Here is our opera-singer!’ exclaimed Madame Babette. ‘Why, the Norman grazier sings like Boupre,’ naming a favourite singer at the neighbouring theatre.

“Pierre was struck by the remark, and quietly resolved to look after the Norman; but again, I believe, it was more because of his mother’s deposit of money than with any thought of Virginie.

“However, the next morning, to the wonder of both mother and son, Mademoiselle Cannes proposed, with much hesitation, to go out and make some little purchase for herself. A month or two ago, this was what Madame Babette had been never weary of urging. But now she was as much surprised as if she had expected Virginie to remain a prisoner in her rooms all the rest of her life. I suppose she had hoped that her first time of quitting it would be when she left it for Monsieur Morin’s house as his wife.

“A quick look from Madame Babette towards Pierre was all that was needed to encourage the boy to follow her. He went out cautiously. She was at the end of the street. She looked up and down, as if waiting for some one. No one was there. Back she came, so swiftly that she nearly caught Pierre before he could retreat through the porte-cochere. There he looked out again. The neighbourhood was low and wild, and strange; and some one spoke to Virginie — nay, laid his hand upon her arm — whose dress and aspect (he had emerged out of a side-street) Pierre did not know; but, after a start, and (Pierre could fancy) a little scream, Virginie recognised the stranger, and the two turned up the side street whence the man had come. Pierre stole swiftly to the corner of this street; no one was there: they had disappeared up some of the alleys. Pierre returned home to excite his mother’s infinite surprise. But they had hardly done talking, when Virginie returned, with a colour and a radiance in her face, which they had never seen there since her father’s death.”

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