OCTOBER 20, 1791.
The long expected move has been made. This morning madame asked me if I had not some room on the ground floor which I could give to her daughter and her in exchange for the one they now occupy. Her daughter had been accustomed to living on one floor, and felt the stairs keenly.
I answered at first —“No.” Then I appeared to bethink me, and told her, with seeming reluctance, that there was one room below which I sometimes opened to guests, but that just now it was in such a state of dilapidation I had shut it up till I could find the opportunity of repairing it.
“Oh!” she replied, subduing her eagerness to the proper point, “you need not wait for that. We are not particular persons. Only let me see the roses come back to my daughter’s cheeks, and I can bear any amount of discomfort. Where is this room?”
I pretended not to hear her.
“It would take two days to get it into any sort of condition fit for sleeping in,” I murmured reflectively. “The floor is so loose in places that you cannot walk across it without danger of falling through. Then there is the chimney —”
She was standing near me and I heard her draw her breath quickly, but she gave no other sign of emotion, not even in the sound of her voice as she interrupted me with the words:
“Oh! if you have got to make the room all over, we might as well not consider the subject. But I am sure it is not necessary. Do let me see it, and I can soon tell you whether we can be comfortable there or not.”
I had sworn to myself never to enter that room again, but such oaths are easily broken. Leaving her for a moment, I procured my key, and taking her with me down the west hall, I unlocked the fatal door and bade her enter.
She hesitated for an instant, but only for an instant. Then she walked coolly in, and stood waiting while I crossed the floor to the window and threw it open. Her first glance flashed to the mantel and its adjacent wainscoting; then, finding everything satisfactory in that direction, it flew over the desolate walls and stiff, high-backed chairs, till it rested on the bare four-poster, denuded of its curtains and coverlets.
“A gloomy place!” she declared; “but you can easily make it look inviting with fresh curtains and a cheerful fire. I am sure that, dismal as it is, it will be more welcome to my daughter than the sunny room up stairs. Besides, the window looks out on the river, and that is always interesting. You will let us come here, will you not? I am sure, if we are willing, you ought to be.”
I gasped inwardly, and agreed with her. Yet I made a few more objections. But as I intended that she should sleep in this room, I finally cleared my brow, and announced that the room should be ready for her occupancy on Friday; and with this she had to be content.
Bless God that I am mistress in my own house! I can order, I can have performed whatever I choose, without fuss, without noise, and without gossip. This is very fortunate just now, for while I am openly having the floor mended in the oak parlor, I am secretly having another piece of work done, which, if once known, would arouse suspicions and awaken conjectures that would destroy all my plans concerning the mysterious guests who insist upon inhabiting the accursed oak parlor.
What this work is can be best understood by a glance at the accompanying diagram, which is a copy of the one drawn up by the Englishman for Mr. Tamworth.
+-----------------------+ | | | C | | | +--------+----+--------+---------+ | |- | | | B |6 | | | D |=|= | | | | | |=|= | | |--------|=| | | | 1 _ | | | |----|2|-| | | -| 3| | | 4| | | | -| | | | | |- | | | A |5 | | | |- | | +--------+ +--------+ +--------+ +--------+ | | | |
[Illustration: A— Oak parlor. B— Bedroom. C— Kitchen, etc. D— Passage I have had made.
1 — Secret chamber. 2 — Fire-place. 3 — Secret spring. 4 — Garden window. 5 — Door to oak parlor. 6 — Clock on stairs to second story. Entrance to room B under stairway.]
Here you see that the secret chamber lies between the rooms A and B. A is the parlor and B is the small room in which I had put up my bed after the nocturnal adventure of October 10. It has always been used as a store room until now, and as no one handles the keys of this house but myself, the fact of my using it for any other purpose is known only to Margery and a certain quiet and reticent workman from Cruger’s shop, to whom I have intrusted the task of opening a passage at D through the wall. For I must have proper means of communication with this room before I can allow Madame Letellier and her daughter to take up their abode in it. Though the former’s plans are a mystery to me; though I feel that she loves her daughter, and, therefore, cannot meditate evil against her, still my doubts of her are so great that I must know her intentions, if possible, and to do this I contemplate keeping a watch over that den of wicked memories which will be at once both unsuspected and vigilant.
The flooring of the parlor is nearly completed, and to-night will see the door of communication between my room and the secret chamber hung and ready for use.
A month ago, if any one had told me that I would not only walk of my own free will into the secret chamber, but take up my abode in it, eat in it and sleep in it, I would have said that person was mad. And yet this is just what I have done.
The result of my first vigil was unexpected. I had looked for — well, I hardly know what I did look for. My anticipations were vague, but they did not lead me in the right direction. But let me tell the story. After I had installed my guests in their new apartment, I informed them that I would have to say good-by for a season, as I had an affection of the eyes — which was true enough — which at times compelled me to shut myself up in a dark room and forego all company. That I felt one of these spells coming on — which was not true — and that by a speedy resort to darkness and quiet, I hoped to prevent the attack from reaching its usual point of distress. Mademoiselle Letellier looked disappointed, but madame ill disguised her relief and satisfaction. Convinced now beyond all doubt that she had some plan in mind which made her dread my watchfulness, I made such final arrangements as were necessary, and betook myself at once to my new room. Once there, I moved immediately into the dark chamber, and walking with the utmost circumspection, crossed to the wall adjoining the oak parlor, and laying my ear against the opening into that room, I listened.
At first I heard nothing, probably because its inmates were still. Then I caught an exclamation of weariness, and soon some words of desultory conversation. Relieved beyond expression, not only because I could hear, but because they talked in English, I withdrew again into my own room. The most difficult problem in the world was solved. I had found the means by which I could insinuate myself, unseen and unsuspected, into the secret confidences of two women, at moments when they felt themselves alone and at the mercy of no judgment but that of God. Should I learn enough to pay me for the humiliation of my position? I did not weary myself by questioning. I knew my motive was pure, and fixed my mind upon that.
Several times before the day was over did I return to the secret chamber and bend my ear to the wall. But in no instance did I linger long, for if the two ladies spoke at all it was on trivial subjects, and in such tones as indicated that neither their passions nor any particular interests were engaged. For such talk I had no ear.
“It will not be always so,” I thought to myself. “When night comes and the heart opens, they will speak of what lies upon their minds.”
And so it happened. As the inn grew quiet and the lights began to disappear from the windows, I crept again to my station against the partition, and in a darkness and atmosphere that at any other time in my life would have completely unnerved me, hearkened to the conversation within.
“Oh, mamma,” were the first words I heard, uttered in English, as all their talk was when they were moved or excited, “if you would only explain! If you would only tell me why you do not wish me to receive letters from him! But this silence — this love and this silence are killing me. I cannot bear it. I feel like a lost child who hears its mother’s voice in the darkness, but does not know how to follow that voice to the refuge it bespeaks.”
“Time was when daughters found it sufficient to know that their parents disapproved of an act, without inquiring into their reasons for it. Your father has told you that the marquis is not eligible as a husband for you, and he expects this to content you. Have I the right to say more than he?”
“Not the right, perhaps, mamma. I do not appeal to your sense of right, but to your love. I am very unhappy. My whole life’s peace is trembling in the balance. You ought to see it — you do see it — yet you let me suffer without giving me one reason why I should do so.”
The mother’s voice was still.
“You see!” the daughter went on again, after what seemed like a moment of helpless waiting. “Though my arms are about you, and my cheek pressed close to yours, you will not speak. Do you wonder that I am heart-broken — that I feel like turning my face to the wall and never looking up again?”
“I wonder at nothing.”
Was that madame’s voice? What boundless misery! what unfathomable passion! what hopeless despair!
“If he were unworthy!” her daughter here exclaimed.
“It you could point to anything he lacks. But he has wealth, a noble name, a face so handsome that I have seen both you and papa look at him in admiration; and as for his mind and attainments, are they not superior to those of all the young men who have ever visited us? Mamma, mamma, you are so good that you require perfection in a son-in-law. But is he not as near it as a man may be? Tell me, darling, for in my dreams he always seems so.”
I heard the answer, though it came slowly and with apparent effort.
“The marquis is an admirable young man, but we have another suitor in mind whose cause we more favor. We wish you to marry Armand Thierry.”
“A shop-keeper and a revolutionist! Oh, mamma!”
“That is why we brought you away. That is why you are here — that you might have opportunity to bethink yourself, and learn that the parents’ views in these matters are the truest ones, and that where we make choice, there you must plight your troth. I assure you that our reasons are good ones, if we do not give them. It is not from tyranny —”
Here the set, strained voice stopped, and a sudden movement in the room beyond showed that the mother had risen. In fact, I presently heard her steps pacing up and down the floor.
“I know it is not tyranny,” the daughter finished, in the soft tones that were so great a contrast to her mother’s. “Tyranny I could have understood; but it is mystery, and that is not so easily comprehended. Why should you and papa be mysterious? What is there in our simple life to create secrecy between persons who love each other so dearly? I see nothing, know nothing; and yet —”
The word struck me like a blow. “Honora!” Great heaven! was that the name of this young girl?
“You are giving too free range to your imagination. You —”
I did not hear the rest. I was thinking of the name I had just heard, and wondering if my suspicions were at fault. They would never have called their child Honora. Who were these women, then? Friends of the Dudleighs? Avengers of the dead? I glued my ear still closer to the wall.
“We have cherished you.” The mother was still speaking. “We have given you all you craved, and more than you asked. From the moment you were born we have both lavished all the tenderness of our hearts upon you. And all we ask in return is trust.” The hard voice, hard because of emotion, I truly believe, quavered a little over that word, but spoke it and went on. “What we do for you now, as always, is for your best good. Will you not believe it, Honora?”
The last appeal was uttered in a passionate tone. It seemed to move the daughter, for her voice had a sob in it as she replied:
“Yes, yes; but why not enlighten me as to your reasons for a course so remarkable? Most parents desire their daughters to do well, but you, on the contrary, not only wish, but urge me to do ill. A noble lover sues for my hand, and his cause is slighted; an ignoble one requests the same favor, and you run to grant it. Is there love in this? Is there consideration? Perhaps; but if so, you should be able to show where it lies. I am not a child, young as I am; I will understand any reasons you may advance. Then let me have your confidence; it is all I ask, and surely it is not much, when you see how I suffer from my disappointment.”
The restless steps ceased. I heard a groan close to my ear; the mother was evidently suffering frightfully.
“Papa is prosperous,” the daughter pleadingly continued. “I know your decision cannot be the result of financial difficulties. And then, if it were, the marquis is rich, and —”
“Honora!”— the mother had turned. I heard her advance toward her daughter —“do you really love the marquis? You have seen him but a few times, have held hardly any intercourse with him, and at your age fancy often takes the place of love. You do not love him, Honora, my child; you cannot; you will forget —”
“Oh, mamma! Oh, mamma! Oh, mamma!”
The tone was enough. Silence reigned, broken at last by Mademoiselle Letellier saying: “It is not necessary to see such a man as he is very many times in order to adjudge him to be the best and noblest that the world contains. But, mamma, you are not correct in saying that I scarcely know him. Though you will not be frank with me, I am going to be frank with you and tell you something that I have hitherto kept closely buried in my breast. I did not think I should ever speak of it to any one, not even to you. Some dreams are so sweet to brood upon alone. But the shadow which your silence has caused to fall between us has taught me the value of openness and truth. I shall never hide anything from you again; so listen, sweet mamma, while I open to you my heart, and learn, as you can only learn from me, how your Honora first came to know and appreciate the Marquis de la Roche–Guyon.”
“Was it not,” interrupted the mother, “at the great ball where he was formally introduced to us?”
“Girls are all alike,” she cried. “You think you know them, and lo! there comes a day when you find that it is in a stranger’s hand you must look for a key to their natures.”
“And is not this what God wills?” suggested the child. “Indeed, indeed, you must blame nature and not me. I did not want to deceive you. I only found it impossible to speak. Besides, if you had looked at me closely enough, you would have seen yourself that I had met the marquis before. Such blushes do not come with a first introduction. I remember their burning heat yet. Are my cheeks warm now? I feel as if they ought to be. But there is nothing to grieve you in these blushes. It is only the way a loving heart takes to speak. There is no wicked shame in them; none, none.”
Did the daughter hear that bitter exclamation? She did not appear to; for her voice was quite calm, though immeasurably loving, as she proceeded in these words:
“I was always a mother-girl. From the first day I can remember, I have known nothing sweeter than to sit within reach of your fondling hand. You were always so tender with me, mamma, even when I must have grieved you or disappointed your hopes or your pride. If I were in the way I never saw it, nor can I remember, of all the looks which have sometimes puzzled me in your face, one that spoke of impatience or lack of sympathy with my pleasures or my griefs. With papa it was not always so. No; don’t stop me. You must let me speak of him. Though he has never been unkind to me, he has a way of frowning at times that frightens me. Whether he is displeased or simply ill I cannot say, but I have always felt a dread of papa’s presence which I never felt of yours; and yet you frown, too, at times, though never upon me, mamma, dear — never upon me.”
A pause that was filled in by a kiss, and then the tender voice went on:
“You can imagine, then, what a turmoil was aroused in my breast when one day, while leaning from the window, I saw a face in the street below that awakened within me such strange feelings I could not communicate them even to my mother. I who had hitherto confessed to her every trivial emotion of my life, shrank in a moment, as it were, from revealing a secret no deeper than that I had looked for one half minute upon the form of a passing stranger, and in that minute learned more of my own heart and of the true meaning of life than in all the sixteen years I had hitherto lived. You have seen him since, and you know he possesses every grace that can render a man attractive; but to me that day he did not look like a man at all, or if I thought of him as such, I thought of him as one who set a pattern to his fellows, while retaining his own immeasurable superiority. He did not see me. I do not know that I wished him to. I was quite content to watch him from where I stood, and note his lordly walk and kindly mien, and dream — oh, what did I dream that day! The memory of your own girlhood must tell you, mamma. I did not know his name; I did not suspect his rank; but from his youth I judged him to be single, from his bearing I knew him to be noble, and from his look, which called out a reflected brightness on every face he chanced to pass, I was assured that he was happy and that he was good. And what does a girl’s fancy need more? Still a glimpse so short might not have had such deep consequences if it had not been followed by an event which rendered those first impressions indelible.”
“An event, Honora?”
“Yes, mamma. You remember the day you sent me with Cecile to take my first lessons in tambour work of Madame Douay?”
“Remember? Oh, my child, that awful day when you came near losing your life! When the house fell with you in it, and —”
“Yes, yes, mamma, and I came home looking so pale you thought I was hurt, and fainted away, and would have died yourself if I had not kissed you back to life. Well, mamma, dear, I was hurt, but not in my body. It was my heart that had received a wound — a wound from which I never shall recover, for it was made by the greatness, the goodness, the noble self-sacrifice of the marquis.”
“Honora! And you never mentioned his name — never!”
“I know, I know, mamma; but you have already forgiven me for that. You know it was from no unworthy motive. Think how you felt when you first saw papa. Think —”
A hurried movement from the mother interrupted her.
“Do not keep me in suspense,” she pleaded; “let me hear what you have to tell.”
“But you are cold; you shudder. Let me get a shawl.”
“No, no, child, I am not cold, only impatient. Go on with your story — go on. How came you to meet the marquis in that place?”
“Ah,” cried the daughter, “it was a strange occurrence. It all came about through a mistake of Cecile’s. Madame Douay, as we were told by the concierge, lived on the fourth floor, but Cecile made a miscount and we went up to the fifth, and as there was a Madame Douay there also, we did not detect our error, but went into her apartments and were seated in the small salon to await madame’s presence. We had not told our errand, so we could not blame the maid who admitted us, nor, though madame failed to appear, did we ever remember to blame any one, for presently through the open window near which we sat there came the sound of voices from the room above, and a drama began of such startling interest that we could think of nothing else.
“Two men were talking. Young men they seemed, and though I could not see them, I could tell from the fresh, fine voice of the one that he was a true man, and from the sneering, smothered tones of the other that he was not only a cynic, but of vicious tendencies. The first one was saying, ‘I never suspected this,’ when my attention was first called to their words, and the answer which came was as follows: ‘If you had, I should not have had the pleasure of seeing you here. Men are not apt to rush voluntarily upon their deaths, and that you are a dead man you already know; for I have sworn to kill you as the clock strikes three, and it is but ten minutes of that time, and you have not a weapon with which to defend yourself.’
“Mamma, you can imagine my feelings at hearing these words, though they were uttered by a person I could not see, to another person equally unknown to me? I looked at Cecile and she looked at me, but we could neither of us move. Every faculty seemed paralyzed save that of hearing. We held our breaths and listened for the reply. It came instantly and without a thrill in its clear accents.
“‘You are a gentleman, and no common assassin. How can you reconcile such an act as this with your honor, or with what sophistries quiet the stings of your conscience when time shall have shown you the sin of so unprovoked an onslaught?’
“‘It is not unprovoked,’ was the harsh and bitter reply. ‘You promised to marry Mademoiselle de Fontaine, and yesterday, at three o’clock — ah, I was there! — you formally renounced your claims. This is an insult that calls for blood, and blood it shall have. Twenty-four hours have elapsed less ten minutes, since you cast this slur upon a noble lady’s good name. When the hour is ripe, you will pay the penalty it requires with your life.’
“‘But,’ urged his young companion, ‘Mademoiselle de Fontaine had herself requested the breaking off of this contract. I am but following the lady’s behests in withdrawing from a position forced upon us against our will, and in direct opposition to her happiness.’
“‘And by what right do you presume to follow the behests of a lady still under age? Has she not guardians to consult? Should not I—’
“‘Pardon me, I have not introduced myself, it seems. I am the Marquis de la Roche–Guyon.’”
Honora paused; her mother’s exclamation had stopped her:
“The marquis! Oh! Honora, and you have always said he was so good!”
“Wait, mamma; remember it is the cynical voice which is speaking, and the marquis’s voice is not cynical. The words, however, are what I have told you; ‘I am the Marquis de la Roche–Guyon.’
“Of course, not knowing either party, nor this name, least of all realizing that it was the one by which the gentleman addressed was himself known, I did not understand why it should create so great an impression. But that it did was evident, not only from the momentary hush that followed, but from the violent exclamation that burst from the young man’s lips. ‘You scoundrel!’ was his cry. But instantly he seemed to regret the word, for he said almost with the same breath: ‘Your pardon, but there is but one man in the world besides myself who could, under any circumstances, have a right to that name.’
“‘And that man?’
“‘Is my cousin, the deceased marquis’s son, long esteemed dead also, and now legally accepted as such.’
“‘And what assures you that I am not he? Your eyes? Well, I am changed, Louis, but not so changed that a good look should not satisfy you that I am the man I claim to be. Besides, you should know this mark on my forehead. You gave it to me —’
“I could not comprehend it then, but I have learned since that the marquis — our marquis, I mean — had only just come into his title; that the son of the preceding Marquis de la Roche–Guyon had been so long missing that the courts had finally adjudged him dead, and given up his inheritance to his cousin; that the first act of the new marquis was to liberate the Demoiselle de Fontaine from an engagement that stood in the way of her marriage with one more desirable to her; and that the unexpected appearance of the real heir in this sudden and mysterious manner was as great a surprise to him as any mortal circumstance could be. Yet to me, who waited with palpitating heart and anxious ears for what should be said next, there was no evidence of this in his tone. With the politeness we are accustomed to in Frenchmen he observed:
“‘You are welcome, Isidor;’ and then, as if struck himself by the incongruity between this phrase and the look and manner of his companion, he added, in slow tones —‘even if you do bring a sword with you.’
“The other, the real marquis, as I suppose, seemed to hesitate at this, and I began to hope he was ashamed of his dreadful threats and would speedily beg the other’s pardon. But I did not know the man, or realize the determination which lay at the bottom of his furious and uncompromising words. But he soon made it evident to us.
“‘Louis,’ he exclaimed, ‘you have always been my evil genius. From our childhood you have stood in my way with your superior strength, beauty, prowess and address. When I was young I simply shrank from you in shame and distaste, but as I grew older I learned to detest you; and now that I see you again, after five years of absence, handsome as ever, taller than ever, and radiant, notwithstanding your nearness to death, with memories such as I have never known, nor can know, and beliefs such as I have never cherished nor will cherish, I hate you so that I find it difficult to wait for the five minutes yet to elapse before my word will let me lift my pistol and fire upon you.’
“‘Then it is your hate of me, and not your fondness for your sister, that has led you to lay this trap for me?’ exclaimed the other. ‘I should think your hate would be satisfied by the change which your return will make in my prospects. From the marquisate of La Roche–Guyon to a simple captaincy in his majesty’s guards is quite a step, Isidor. Will it not suffice to soothe an antagonism which I never shared?’
“‘Nothing can soothe it, not even your death! You have robbed me of too much. First, of the world’s esteem, then of my mother’s confidence, and, lastly, of my father’s love. Yes; deny it if you will, my father loved you better than he did me. This was the reason he sent me from home; and when, shipwrecked and captured by savages, I found myself thrown into an Eastern dungeon, half my misery and all my rage were in the thought that he would not consider my loss a misfortune, but die in greater peace and hope from knowing that his family honors would devolve upon one more after his own heart than myself. Oh! I have had cause, and I have had time to nourish my hate. Five years in a dungeon affords one leisure, and on every square stone of that wall, and upon every inch of its relentless pavement, I have beaten out this determination with my bare hands and manacled feet, that if I ever did escape, and ever did return to the home of my fathers, I would have full pay for the suffering you have caused me, even if I had it in your blood. I have returned, and I find my father dead, and in his place yourself, happy, insolent, and triumphant. Can you blame me for remembering my vows, for resenting what will ever seem an insult to my sister, and for wishing to hurry the time that moves so slowly toward the fatal stroke of three?’
“‘I do not blame you, because you are a madman. I do not fear you, because, having no one in the world to love, I do not greatly dread a sudden release from it. But I pity you because you have suffered, and will defend myself because your sufferings will be increased rather than diminished by the success of your crazy intentions.’
“The answer came, quick and furious:
“‘I do not want your pity, and I scorn any defense which you can make. Do you think I have not made my calculations well? There is nothing here which can give you hope. We are alone on the sixth story. Beneath us are only women, and if you call from the window, I can shoot you dead before your voice can reach the street. Perhaps, though, you do not think of saving yourself, but of ensnaring me. Bah! as if the sight of the headsman would stop me now. Besides, I am prepared for flight. Have you looked at this house? It is not like other houses; it is double, and the room in which we stand has other foundations and walls from this one behind me which I guard with my pistol. Let the deed be once done — and the clock, as you see, gives us but one minute more — and I leap into this other apartment, down another flight of stairs from those you came up, and so to another door that opens upon another street. Then shout, if you will; I am safe. As to your life, it is as much at my command as if my bullet were already in your heart.’
“‘We will see!’ was the thundering reply, and with these words a rush was made that shook the floor above our heads, and scattered bits of plaster down upon us. Released by the action from the fearful spell which had benumbed my limbs, I felt that I could move at last, and, leaping to my feet, I uttered scream after scream. But they perished in my throat, smothered by a new fear; for at this moment my arm was caught by Cecile, and following, with horrified gaze, the pointing of her uplifted hand, I saw the straight line of the window-ledge before me dip and curve, and yielding to the force of her agonized strength, I let myself be dragged across the floor, while before us, beneath us, above us, all was one chaos of heaving and crashing timbers, which, in another instant, broke into a thunder of confused sounds, and we beheld beneath us a pit of darkness, death, and tumult, where, but an instant before, were all the appurtenances of a comfortable and luxurious home.
“We were safe, for we had reached the flooring of the second house before that of the first had completely fallen, but I could not think of myself, narrow as my escape had been, and marvelous as was the warning which had revealed to Cecile the only path of safety. For in the clouded space above me, overhanging a gulf I dared not measure with my eyes or sound with my imagination, I saw clinging by one arm to a beam the awful figure of a man, while crouching near him on a portion of flooring that still clung intact to the wall, I beheld another in whose noble traits, distorted though they were by the emotions of the moment, I recognized him who, but a month before, had changed the world for me with his look.
“Ah! mamma, and a thousand deaths lay between us; and we could neither reach him nor give any alarm, for the space in which we found ourselves was small and shut from the outer world by a door which was locked. How it became locked I never knew, but I have thought that the maid in flying might have turned the key behind her, under some wild impression that by this means she would shut out destruction. However that may be, we were helpless and threatened by death. But our own situation did not alarm us, for theirs was so much more terrible, especially that of the man whose straining arm clung so frantically to a support that threatened every moment to slip from his grasp. I could not look at him, and scarcely could I look at the other. But I did, for in his face there was such a high and noble resolve that it made me forget his danger, till suddenly I heard him speak high above the sounds that arose in a tempest from the street:
“‘Do not despair, Isidor. I think I can reach you and pull you up upon the beam. You shall not die a dog’s death if I can help it. Hold on and I will come.’ And he began to move and raise himself upon the narrow platform on which he stood, and I saw that he meant what he said, and involuntarily and with but little reason I cried:
“‘Don’t do it! He is your enemy. Save yourself; he is but a murderer; let him go.’
“I said that; I who never had a cruel thought before in my life. But he, without looking to see whence this voice came, answered boldly:
“‘It is because he is my enemy that I wish to save him. I could never enjoy a safety won at the expense of his death. Isidor, you must live! So hold on, my cousin.’
“And without saying anything further, this brave man set about a task that seemed to me at that moment not only superhuman but impossible. Gathering himself up, he prepared to make a spring, and in another instant would have launched himself toward that rocking beam, if Cecile, driven to extremity by the slow tottering of the floor upon which we stood, had not shrieked:
“‘And to save him you would leave us to perish?’
“He paused and gave one look. ‘Yes!’ he cried. ‘God help you, but you look like innocent women, while he —’ The leap was made. He lay clinging to the beam. His cousin, who had not fallen, cast one glance up; their eyes met, and Isidor, as he was called, gave one great sob. ‘Oh, Louis!’ he murmured, and was silent.
“And then, mamma, there began a struggle for rescue such as I dare not even recall. I saw it because I could not look elsewhere, but I crushed its meaning from my consciousness, lest I should myself perish before I saw him safe. And all the while the figure hanging over us swayed with the rocking of the beam, and gave no help until that last terrible moment when his cousin, reaching down, was able to sustain him under the arm till he could get his other hand up and clasp it around the beam. Then it all looked well, and we began to hope, when suddenly and without warning the nearly rescued man gave a great shriek, and crying, ‘You have conquered!’ unloosed his grasp, and fell headlong into the abyss.
“Mamma, I did not faint. An unnatural strength seemed given to me. But I looked at the marquis, and for the first time he looked at me, and I saw the expression of horrified amaze with which he had beheld his cousin disappear gradually change to one of the softest and divinest looks that ever visited a noble visage, and knew that even out of that pit of death love had arisen for us two, and that henceforth we belonged to each other, whether our span of life should be cut short in a moment or extended into an eternity of years. His own heart seemed to assure him of the same sweet fact, for the next moment he was renewing his superhuman efforts, but this time for our rescue and his own. He worked himself along that beam; he gave another leap; he landed at our side, and tore a way for us through that closed door. In another five minutes we were in the street, with half Paris surging about us, but before the crowd had quite seized upon me, he had found time to whisper in my ear:
“‘I am the Marquis de la Roche–Guyon. It will always be a matter of thankfulness to me that I was not left to sacrifice the fairest woman in the world to the rescue of a thankless coward.’
“Mamma, do you blame me for giving such a man my heart, and do you wonder that what I have dedicated to this hero I can never yield to any other man?”
The mother was silent — for a long time silent. Was she horror-stricken at the story of a danger she had never fully comprehended till now? Or were her thoughts busy with her own past, and its possible incommunicable secrets of blood and horror? The cry she gave at last betrayed anguish, but did not answer this question.
“My child! my child! my child!” That was all, but it seemed torn from her heart, that bled after it.
“He was not long in seeking me out, mamma, dear. With grace and consideration he paid me his court, and I was happy till I saw that you and papa frowned upon an alliance that to me seemed laden with promise. I could not understand it, nor could I understand our hurried departure from France, nor our secret journey here. All has been a mystery to me; but your will is my will, and I dare not complain.”
“Pure heart!” broke from the mother’s lips. “Would to God —”
“What, dear mamma?”
“That you had been moved by a lesser man than the Marquis de la Roche–Guyon.”
“A lesser man?”
“With Armand Thierry, since he is the one you will have to marry.”
“I shall not marry him.”
“If I cannot give my hand where my heart is, I remain unmarried. I dishonor no man with unmeaning marriage vows.”
“I may never be happy, but I will never be base. You yourself cannot wish me to be that. You, who married for love, must understand that a woman loses her title to respect when she utters vows to one man while her heart is with another.”
“You did marry for love, didn’t you, sweet mamma? I like to think so. I like to think that papa never cared for any other woman in all the world but you, and that from the moment you first saw him, you knew him to be the one man capable of rousing every noble instinct within you. It is so sweet to enshrine you in such a pure romance, mamma. Though you have been married sixteen years — ah, how old I am! — I see you sit and look at papa sometimes, for a long, long time without speaking, and though you do not smile, I think, ‘She is dreaming of the days when life was pure joy, because it was pure love,’ and I long to ask you to tell me about those days, because I am sure, if you did, you would tell me the sweetest story of mutual love and devotion. Isn’t it so, mamma mine?”
Would that mother answer? Could she? I seemed to behold her figure pausing petrified in the darkness, drawing deep breaths, and scarcely knowing whether to curse or pray. I listened and listened, but it was long before the answer came. Then it was short and hurried, like the pants of one dying.
“Honora, you hurt me.” Another silence. “You make my task too hard. If I know what love is —” She found it hard to go on; but she did —“all the more anguish it must cost me to deny you what is so deeply desired. I— I would make you happy if I could. I will make you happy if it is in my power to do so, but I can hold out no hope — none, none.”
“Nor tell me why?”
“Nor tell you why.”
“Mamma, you suffer. I see it now, and somehow it makes it easier for me to bear my own suffering. You do not willfully deny me what is as much as my life to me.”
“Willfully! Honora! Listen.” The mother had stopped in her walk, for I heard her restless tread no more. “You say that I suffer, child. I have never had one happy day. Whatever romance you have woven about me, I have never known, from the hour of my birth till now, one moment of such delight as you experienced when you saw the character of the marquis unfold before you so grandly. The nearest I have ever come to bliss was when you were first placed in my arms. Then, indeed, for one wild moment, I felt the baptism of true love. I looked at you, and my heart opened. Alas! it was to take in pain as well as joy. You had the face — Oh, Heaven! what am I saying? This darkness unnerves me, Honora. Let us have light, light, anything to keep my reason from faltering.”
“Mother, mother, you are ill!”
“No. I am simply weak. I always am when I recall your birth and the first few days that followed it. I was so glad to have something I could really love; so glad to feel that my heart beat, and to know that it beat for one so innocent, so sweet, so helpless as yourself. What if I had pains and hours of darkness, did I not have your smile, also, and, later on, your love? Child, if there has been any good in my life — and sometimes I have thought there was a little — it came from you. So, never even question again if I could hurt you willfully. I not only could not do this and live, but to save you from pain I would dare — What would I not dare? Let man or angels say.”
Before such passion as this young Honora sank helpless.
“Oh, mamma, mamma,” she moaned, “forgive me. I did not know — how could I know? Don’t sob, mamma, dear; let me hold you — so; now lay your cheek against mine and simply love me. I will lie quite still and ask no questions, and you will rest, too; and God will bless us, as he always blesses the loving and the true.”
But madame did not comply with this endearing request. Satisfying her daughter with a few kisses and some words that the paroxysm of her grief was past, she resumed her walk up and down the room, pausing every now and then as if to listen, and hastily resuming her walk as some slight exclamation from the bed assured her that mademoiselle was not yet asleep. As these pauses always took place when she was near the wall behind which I crouched, I frequently heard her breath, which came heavily, and once the rustle of her gown. But I did not stir. As long as her uneasy form flitted about the room, I clung to the partition, listening, determined that nothing should move me — not even my own terrors. And though night presently merged into midnight, and the silence and horror of the spot became frightful, I kept my post, for the stealthy tread continued, and so did the desultory scraps of conversation, which proved that, if the mother was waiting for the daughter to sleep, the daughter was equally waiting for the mother to retire. And so daylight came, and with it exhaustion to more than one of us three watchers.
And this is the record of the first night spent by me in the secret chamber.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09