I was fifteen when my grandfather died. At Roche–Mauprat his death caused no sorrow, but infinite consternation. He was the soul of every vice that reigned therein, and it is certain that he was more cruel, though less vile, than his sons. On his death the sort of glory which his audacity had won for us grew dim. His sons, hitherto held under firm control, became more and more drunken and debauched. Moreover, each day added some new peril to their expeditions.
Except for the few trusty vassals whom we treated well, and who were all devoted to us, we were becoming more and more isolated and resourceless. People had left the neighbouring country in consequence of our violent depredations. The terror that we inspired pushed back daily the bounds of the desert around us. In making our ventures we had to go farther afield, even to the borders of the plain. There we had not the upper hand; and my Uncle Laurence, the boldest of us all, was dangerously wounded in a skirmish. Other schemes had to be devised. John suggested them. One was that we should slip into the fairs under various disguises, and exercise our skill in thieving. From brigands we became pick-pockets, and our detested name sank lower and lower in infamy. We formed a fellowship with the most noisome characters our province concealed, and, by an exchange of rascally services, once again managed to avoid destitution.
I say we, for I was beginning to take a place in this band of cutthroats when my grandfather died. He had yielded to my entreaties and allowed me to join in some of the last expeditions he attempted. I shall make no apologies; but here, gentlemen, you behold a man who has followed the profession of a bandit. I feel no remorse at the recollection, no more than a soldier would feel at having served a campaign under orders from his general. I thought that I was still living in the middle ages. The laws of the land, with all their strength and wisdom, were to me words devoid of meaning. I felt brave and full of vigour; fighting was a joy. Truly, the results of our victories often made me blush; but, as they in no way profited myself, I washed my hands of them. Nay, I remember with pleasure that I helped more than one victim who had been knocked down to get up and escape.
This existence, with its movement, its dangers, and its fatigues, had a numbing effect on me. It took me away from any painful reflections which might have arisen in my mind. Besides, it freed me from the immediate tyranny of John. However, after the death of my grandfather, when our band degraded itself to exploits of a different nature, I fell back under his odious sway. I was by no means fitted for lying and fraud. I displayed not only aversion but also incapacity for this new industry. Consequently my uncle looked upon me as useless, and began to maltreat me again. They would have driven me away had they not been afraid that I might make my peace with society, and become a dangerous enemy to themselves. While they were in doubt as to whether it was wiser to feed me or to live in fear of me, they often thought (as I have since learned) of picking a quarrel with me, and forcing a fight in which I might be got rid of. This was John’s suggestion. Antony, however, who retained more of Tristan’s energy and love of fair play at home than any of his brothers, proved clearly that I did more good than harm. I was, he declared, a brave fighter, and there was no knowing when they might need an extra hand. I might also be shaped into a swindler. I was very young and very ignorant; but John, perhaps, would endeavour to win me over by kindness, and make my lot less wretched. Above all, he might enlighten me as to my true position, by explaining that I was an outcast from society, and could not return to it without being hanged immediately. Then, perhaps, my obstinacy and pride would give way, out of regard to my own well-being on the one hand, and from necessity on the other. At all events, they should try this before getting rid of me.
“For,” said Antony to round off his homily, “we were ten Mauprats last year; our father is dead, and, if we kill Bernard, we shall only be eight.”
This argument gained the day. They brought me forth from the species of dungeon in which I had languished for several months; they gave me new clothes; they exchanged my old gun for a beautiful carbine that I had always coveted; they explained to me my position in the world; they honoured me with the best wine at meals. I promised to reflect, and meanwhile, became rather more brutalized by inaction and drunkenness than I had been by brigandage.
However, my captivity had made such a terrible impression on me that I took a secret oath to dare any dangers that might assail me on the territories of the King of France, rather than endure a repetition of that hideous experience. Nothing but a miserable point of honour now kept me at Roche–Mauprat. It was evident that a storm was gathering over our heads. The peasants were discontented, in spite of all our efforts to attach them to us; doctrines of independence were secretly insinuating themselves into their midst; our most faithful retainers were growing tired of merely having their fill of bread and meat; they were demanding money, and we had none. We had received more than one serious summons to pay our fiscal dues to the state, and as our private creditors had joined hands with the crown officers and the recalcitrant peasants, everything was threatening us with a catastrophe like that which had just overtaken the Seigneur de Pleumartin in our province.1
1 The reputation which the Seigneur de Pleumartin has left behind him in the province will preserve the story of Mauprat from the reproach of exaggeration. Pen would refuse to trace the savage obscenities and refinements of cruelty which marked the life of this madman, and which perpetuated the traditions of feudal brigandage in Berry down to the last days of the ancient monarchy. His chateau was besieged, and after a stubborn resistance he was taken and hanged. There are many people still living, nor yet very advanced in years, who knew the man.
My uncles had long thought of making common cause with this country squire in his marauding expeditions and his resistance to authority. However, just as Pleumartin, about to fall into the hands of his enemies, had given his word of honour that he would welcome us as friends and allies if we went to his assistance, we had heard of his defeat and tragic end. Thus we ourselves were now on our guard night and day. It was a question of either fleeing the country or bracing ourselves for a decisive struggle. Some counselled the former alternative; the others declared their resolve to follow the advice of their dying father and to find a grave under the ruins of the keep. Any suggestion of flight or compromise they denounced as contemptible cowardice. The fear, then, of incurring such a reproach, and perhaps in some measure an instinctive love of danger, still kept me back. However, my aversion to this odious existence was only lying dormant, ready to break out violently at any moment.
One evening, after a heavy supper, we remained at table, drinking and conversing — God knows in what words and on what subject! It was frightful weather. The rain, driven through the broken windows, was running in streams across the stone floor of the hall; and the old walls were trembling in the storm. The night wind was whistling through chinks in the roof and making the flames of our resin torches flicker weirdly. During the meal my uncles had rallied me very much on what they called my virtue; they had treated my shyness in the presence of women as a sign of continence; and it was especially in this matter that they urged me to evil by ridiculing my modesty. While parrying these coarse gibes and making thrusts in the same strain, I had been drinking enormously. Consequently, my wild imagination had become inflamed, and I boasted that I would be bolder and more successful with the first woman brought to Roche–Mauprat than any of my uncles. The challenge was accepted amid roars of laughter. Peals of thunder sent back an answer to the infernal merriment.
All at once the horn was heard at the portcullis. Everybody stopped talking. The blast just blown was the signal used by the Mauprats to summon each other or make themselves known. It was my Uncle Laurence, who had been absent all day and who was now asking to be let in. We had so little confidence in others that we acted as our own turnkeys in the fortress. John rose and took down the keys, but he stopped immediately on hearing a second blast of the horn. This meant that Laurence was bringing in a prize, and that we were to go and meet him. In the twinkling of an eye all the Mauprats were at the portcullis, torch in hand — except myself, whose indifference at this moment was profound, and whose legs were seriously conscious of wine.
“If it is a woman,” cried Antony as he went out, “I swear by the soul of my father that she shall be handed over to you, my valiant young man, and we’ll see if your courage comes up to your conceit.”
I remained with my elbows on the table, sunk in an uncomfortable stupor.
When the door opened again I saw a woman in a strange costume entering with a confident step. It required an effort to keep my mind from wandering, and to grasp what one of the Mauprats came and whispered to me. In the middle of a wolf-hunt, at which several of the nobles in the neighbourhood had been present with their wives, this young lady’s horse had taken fright and bolted away from the rest of the field. When it had pulled up after a gallop of about a league, she had tried to find her way back; but, not knowing the Varenne district, where all the landmarks are so much alike, she had gone farther and farther astray. The storm and the advent of night had completed her perplexity. Laurence, happening to meet her, had offered to escort her to the chateau of Rochemaure, which, as a fact, was more than six leagues distant; but he had declared that it was quite near, and had pretended to be the gamekeeper there. She did not actually know the lady of Rochemaure, but being a distant connection of hers, she counted upon a welcome. Never having seen the face of a single Mauprat, and little dreaming that she was so near their haunt, she had followed her guide confidingly; and as she had never in her life caught a glimpse of Roche–Mauprat, whether in the distance or close at hand, she was led upon the scene of our orgies without having the least suspicion of the trap into which she had fallen.
When I rubbed my heavy eyes and beheld this woman, so young and so beautiful, with her expression of calm sincerity and of goodness, the like of which I had never seen on the brow of any other (for all those who had passed the portcullis of our abode were either insolent prostitutes or stupid victims), I could not but think I was dreaming.
Remembering how prominently fairies figured in my legends of chivalry, I almost fancied that Morgana or Urganda had come among us to administer justice; and, for the moment, I felt an inclination to throw myself on my knees and protest against any judgment which should confound me with my uncles. Antony, to whom Laurence had quickly given the cue, approached her with as much politeness as he had in his composition, and begged her to excuse his hunting costume, likewise that of his friends. They were all nephews or cousins of the lady of Rochemaure, whom they were now awaiting before sitting down to table. Being very religious, she was at present in the chapel, in pious conference with the chaplain. The air of simple confidence with which the stranger listened to these absurd lies went to my heart, but I had not a very clear idea of what I felt.
“Please,” she said to my Uncle John, who was dancing attendance on her with the leer of a satyr, “please do not let me disturb this lady. I am so troubled about the anxiety I must be causing my father and my friends at the present moment, that I could not really stop here. All I ask is that she will be kind enough to lend me a fresh horse and a guide, so that I may return to the place where I presume my people may have gone to wait for me.”
“Madame,” replied John, with assurance, “it is impossible for you to start again in such weather as this; besides, if you did, that would only serve to delay the hour of rejoining those who are looking for you. Ten of our men, well mounted and provided with torches, shall set out this very moment in ten different directions and scour every corner of Varenne. Thus, in two hours at the most, your relatives will be certain to have news of you, and you will soon see them arriving here, where we will entertain them as best we can. Please, then, set your mind at rest, and take some cordial to restore you; for you must be wet through and quite exhausted.”
“Were it not for the anxiety I feel,” she answered with a smile, “I should be famished. I will try to eat something; but do not put yourselves to any inconvenience on my account. You have been far too good already.”
Approaching the table, where I was still resting on my elbows, she took some fruit that was by my side without noticing me. I turned and stared at her insolently with a besotted expression. She returned my gaze haughtily — at least, so it appeared to me then. I have since learned that she did not even see me; for, while making a great effort to appear calm and to reply with an air of confidence to the offers of hospitality, she was at heart very much disturbed by the unexpected presence of so many strange men with their forbidding mien and rough garb. However, she did not suspect anything. I overheard one of the Mauprats near me saying to John:
“Good! It’s all right; she is falling into the trap. Let us make her drink; then she will begin to talk.”
“One moment,” replied John; “watch her carefully; this is a serious matter; there is something better to be had out of this than a little passing pleasure. I am going to talk it over with the others; you will be sent for to give your opinion. Meanwhile keep an eye on Bernard.”
“What is the matter?” I said abruptly, as I faced him. “Does not this girl belong to me? Did not Antony swear it by the soul of my grandfather?”
“Yes, confound it, that’s true,” said Antony, approaching our group, whilst the other Mauprats surrounded the lady. “Listen, Bernard; I will keep my word on one condition.”
“What is that?”
“It is quite simple: that you won’t within the next ten minutes tell this wench that she is not at old Rochemaure’s.”
“What do you take me for?” I answered, pulling my hat over my eyes. “Do you think that I am an idiot? Wait a minute; would you like me to go and get my grandmother’s dress which is upstairs and pass myself off for this same lady of Rochemaure?”
“A splendid idea!” replied Laurence.
“But before anything is done,” said John, “I want to speak to you all.”
And making signs to the others, he drew them out of the hall. Just as they were going out I thought I noticed that John was trying to persuade Antony to keep watch over me. But Antony, with a firmness which I could not understand, insisted on following the rest. I was left alone with the stranger.
For a moment I remained bewildered, almost stupefied, and more embarrassed than pleased at the tete-a-tete. Then I endeavoured to think of some explanation of these mysterious things that were happening around me, and succeeded, as far as the fumes of the wine would allow me, in imagining something fairly probable, though, indeed, remote enough from the actual truth.
I thought I could account for everything I had just seen and heard by supposing, first, that the lady, quiet and richly dressed though she was, was one of those daughters of Bohemia that I had sometimes seen at fairs; secondly, that Laurence, having met her in the country, had brought her here to amuse the company; and, thirdly, that they had told her of my condition of swaggering drunkenness, and had prevailed on her to put my gallantry to the proof, whilst they were to watch me through the keyhole. My first movement, as soon as these ideas had taken possession of me, was to rise and go straight to the door. This I locked with a double turn and then bolted. When I had done this I returned to the lady, determined that I would not, at all events, give her cause to laugh at my bashfulness.
She was sitting close to the fire, and as she was occupied in drying her wet garments, leaning forward over the hearth, she had not taken any notice of what I was doing; but when I approached her the strange expression on my face caused her to start. I had made up my mind to kiss her, as a beginning; but, I know not by what miracle, as soon as she raised her eyes to mine, this familiarity became impossible. I only had sufficient courage to say:
“Upon my word, mademoiselle, you are a charming creature, and I love you — as true as my name is Bernard Mauprat.”
“Bernard Mauprat!” she cried, springing up; “you are Bernard Mauprat, you? In that case, change your manner and learn to whom you are talking. Have they not told you?”
“No one has told me, but I can guess,” I replied with a grin, while trying hard to trample down the feeling of respect with which her sudden pallor and imperious attitude inspired me.
“If you can guess,” she said, “how is it possible that you allow yourself to speak to me in this way? But they were right when they said you were ill-mannered; and yet I always had a wish to meet you.”
“Really!” I said, with the same hideous grin. “You! A princess of the king’s highway, who have known so many men in your life? But let my lips meet your own, my sweet, and you shall see if I am not as nicely mannered as those uncles of mine whom you were listening to so willingly just now.”
“Your uncles!” she cried, suddenly seizing her chair and placing it between us as if from some instinct of self-defence. “Oh, mon Dieu! mon Dieu! Then I am not at Madame de Rochemaure’s?”
“Our name certainly begins in the same way, and we come of as good a rock as anybody.”
“Roche–Mauprat!” she muttered, trembling from head to foot, like a hind when it hears the howl of wolves.
And her lips grew quite white. Her agony was manifest in every gesture. From an involuntary feeling of sympathy I shuddered myself, and I was on the point of changing my manner and language forthwith.
“What can there be in this to astound her so?” I asked myself. “Is she not merely acting a part? And even if the Mauprats are not hidden behind some wainscot listening to us, is she not sure to give them an account of everything that takes place? And yet she is trembling like an aspen leaf. But what if she is acting? I once saw an actress play Genevieve de Brabant, and she wept so that one might have been deceived.”
I was in a state of great perplexity, and I cast harassed glances now at her, now at the doors, which I fancied every moment would be thrown wide open amid roars of laughter from my uncles.
This woman was beautiful as the day. I do not believe there has ever lived a woman as lovely as she. It is not I alone who say so; she has left a reputation for beauty which has not yet died out in her province. She was rather tall, slender, and remarkable for the easy grace of her movements. Her complexion was very fair, while her eyes were dark and her hair like ebony. Her glance and her smile showed a union of goodness and acuteness which it was almost impossible to conceive; it was as if Heaven had given her two souls, one wholly of intellect, the other wholly of feeling. She was naturally cheerful and brave — an angel, indeed, whom the sorrows of humanity had not yet dared to touch. She knew not what it was to suffer; she knew not what it was to distrust and dread. This, indeed, was the first trial of her life, and it was I, brute that I was, who made her undergo it. I took her for a gipsy, and she was an angel of purity.
She was my young cousin (or aunt, after the Breton fashion), Edmee de Mauprat, the daughter of M. Hubert, my great-uncle (again in the Breton fashion), known as the Chevalier — he who had sought release from the Order of Malta that he might marry, though already somewhat advanced in years. My cousin was the same age as myself; at least, there was a difference of only a few months between us. Both of us were now seventeen, and this was our first interview. She whom I ought to have protected at the peril of my life against the world was now standing before me trembling and terror-stricken, like a victim before the executioner.
She made a great effort, and approaching me as I walked about the hall deep in thought, she explained who she was, adding:
“It is impossible that you can be an infamous creature like all these brigands whom I have just seen, and of whose hideous life I have often heard. You are young; your mother was good and wise. My father wanted to adopt you and bring you up as his son. Even to-day he is still full of grief at not being able to draw you out of the abyss in which you lie. Have you not often received messages from him? Bernard, you and I are of the same family; think of the ties of blood; why would you insult me? Do they intend to assassinate me here or torture me? Why did they deceive me by saying that I was at Rochemaure? Why did they withdraw in this mysterious way? What are they preparing? What is going to happen?”
Her words were cut short by the report of a gun outside. A shot from the culverin replied to it, and the alarm trumpet shook the gloomy walls of the keep with its dismal note. Mademoiselle de Mauprat fell back into her chair. I remained where I was, wondering whether this was some new scene in the comedy they were enjoying at my expense. However, I resolved not to let the alarm cause me any uneasiness until I had certain proof that it was not a trick.
“Come, now,” I said, going up to her again, “own that all this is a joke. You are not Mademoiselle de Mauprat at all; and you merely want to discover if I am an apprentice capable of making love.”
“I swear by Christ,” she answered, taking my hands in her own, which were cold as death, “that I am Edmee, your cousin, your prisoner — yes, and your friend; for I have always felt an interest in you; I have always implored my father not to cease his efforts for you. But listen, Bernard; they are fighting, and fighting with guns! It must be my father who has come to look for me, and they are going to kill him. Ah!” she cried, falling on her knees before me, “go and prevent that, Bernard! Tell your uncles to respect my father, the best of men, if you but knew! Tell them that, if they hate our family, if they must have blood, they may kill me! Let them tear my heart out; but let them respect my father . . .”
Some one outside called me in a violent voice.
“Where is the coward? Where is that wretched boy?” shouted my Uncle Laurence.
Then he shook the door; but I had fastened it so securely that it resisted all his furious blows.
“That miserable cur is amusing himself by making love while our throats are being cut! Bernard, the mounted police are attacking us! Your Uncle Louis had just been killed! Come and help us! For God’s sake, come, Bernard!”
“May the devil take the lot of you,” I cried, “and may you be killed yourself, if I believe a single word of all this. I am not such a fool as you imagine; the only cowards here are those who lie. Didn’t I swear that the woman should be mine? I’m not going to give her up until I choose.”
“To hell with you!” replied Laurence; “you are pretending . . .”
The shots rang out faster. Frightful cries were heard. Laurence left the door and ran in the direction of the noise. His eagerness proved him so much in earnest that I could no longer refuse to believe him. The thought that they would accuse me of cowardice overcame me. I advanced towards the door.
“O Bernard! O Monsieur de Mauprat!” cried Edmee, staggering after me; “let me go with you. I will throw myself at your uncles’ feet; I will make them stop the fight; I will give them all I possess, my life, if they wish . . . if only they will spare my father.”
“Wait a moment,” I said, turning towards her; “I am by no means certain that this is not a joke at my expense. I have a suspicion that my uncles are there, behind that door, and that, while our whippers-in are firing off guns in the courtyard, they are waiting with a blanket to toss me. Now, either you are my cousin, or you are a . . . You must make me a solemn promise, and I will make you one in return. If you are one of these wandering charmers and I quit this room the dupe of your pretty acting, you must swear to be my mistress, and to allow none other near you until I have had my rights; otherwise, for my part, I swear that you shall be chastised, even as my spotted dog Flora was chastised this morning. If, on the other hand, you are Edmee, and I swear to intervene between your father and those who would kill him, what promise will you make me, what will you swear?”
“If you save my father,” she cried, “I swear to you that I will marry you, I swear it.”
“Ho! ho! indeed!” I said, emboldened by her enthusiasm, the sublimity of which I did not understand. “Give me a pledge, then, so that in any case I do not go out from here like a fool.”
I took her in my arms and kissed her. She did not attempt to resist. Her cheeks were like ice. Mechanically she began to follow me as I moved to the door. I was obliged to push her back. I did so without roughness; but she fell as one in a faint. I began to grasp the gravity of my position; for there was nobody in the corridor and the tumult outside was becoming more and more alarming. I was about to run and get my weapons, when a last feeling of distrust, or it may have been another sentiment, prompted me to go back and double-lock the door of the hall where I was leaving Edmee. I put the key into my belt and hastened to the ramparts, armed with a gun, which I loaded as I ran.
It was simply an attack made by the mounted police, and had nothing whatever to do with Mademoiselle de Mauprat. A little while before our creditors had obtained a writ of arrest against us. The law officers, beaten and otherwise severely handled, had demanded of the King’s advocate at the provincial court of Bourges another warrant of arrest. This the armed police were now doing their best to execute. They had hoped to effect an easy capture by means of a night surprise. But we were in a better state of defence than they had anticipated. Our men were brave and well armed; and then we were fighting for our very existence; we had the courage of despair, and this was an immense advantage. Our band amounted to twenty-four all told; theirs to more than fifty soldiers, in addition to a score or more of peasants, who were slinging stones from the flanks. These, however, did more harm to their allies than they did to us.
For half an hour the fighting was most desperate. At the end of this time the enemy had become so dismayed by our resistance that they fell back, and hostilities were suspended. However, they soon returned to the attack, and again were repulsed with loss. Hostilities were once more suspended. They then, for the third time, called upon us to surrender, promising that our lives should be spared. Antony Mauprat replied with an obscene jest. They remained undecided, but did not withdraw.
I had fought bravely; I had done what I called my duty. There was a long lull. It was impossible to judge the distance of the enemy, and we dared not fire at random into the darkness, for our ammunition was too precious. All my uncles remained riveted on the ramparts, in case of fresh attack. My Uncle Louis was dangerously wounded. Thoughts of my prisoner returned to my mind. At the beginning of the fight I had heard John Mauprat saying, that if our defeat seemed imminent, we must offer to hand her over to the enemy, on condition that they should raise the seige; that if they refused, we must hang her before their eyes. I had no longer any doubts about the truth of what she had told me. When victory appeared to declare for us they forgot the captive. But I noticed the crafty John quitting the culverin which he so loved to fire, and creeping away like a cat into the darkness. A feeling of ungovernable jealousy seized me. I threw down my gun and dashed after him, knife in hand, resolved, I believe, to stab him if he attempted to touch what I considered my booty. I saw him approach the door, try to open it, peer attentively through the keyhole, to assure himself that his prey had not escaped him. Suddenly shots were heard again. He sprang to his maimed feet with that marvellous agility of his, and limped off to the ramparts. For myself, hidden as I was by the darkness, I let him pass and did not follow. A passion other than the love of slaughter had just taken possession of me. A flash of jealousy had fired my senses. The smell of powder, the sight of blood, the noise, the danger, and the many bumpers of brandy we had passed round to keep up our strength had strangely heated my brain. I took the key from my belt and opened the door noisily. And now, as I stood before my captive again, I was no longer the suspicious and clumsy novice she had so easily moved to pity: I was the wild outlaw of Roche–Mauprat, a hundred times more dangerous than at first. She rushed towards me eagerly. I opened my arms to catch her; instead of being frightened she threw herself into them, exclaiming:
“Well! and my father?”
“Your father,” I said, kissing her, “is not there. At the present moment there is no question either of him or of you. We have brought down a dozen gendarmes, that is all. Victory, as usual, is declaring for us. So, don’t trouble yourself any more about your father; and I, I won’t trouble myself further about the King’s men. Let us live in peace and rejoice in love.”
With these words I raised to my lips a goblet of wine which had been left on the table. But she took it out of my hands with an air of authority that made me all the bolder.
“Don’t drink any more,” she said; “think seriously of what you are saying. Is what you tell me true? Will you answer for it on your honour, on the soul of your mother?”
“Every word is true; I swear it by your pretty rosy lips,” I replied, trying to kiss her again.
But she drew back in terror.
“Oh, mon Dieu!” she exclaimed, “he is drunk! Bernard! Bernard! remember what you promised; do not break your word. You have not forgotten, have you, that I am your kinswoman, your sister?”
“You are my mistress or my wife,” I answered, still pursuing her.
“You are a contemptible creature!” she rejoined, repulsing me with her riding whip. “What have you done that I should be aught to you? Have you helped my father?”
“I swore to help him; and I would have helped him if he had been there; it is just the same, therefore, as if I really had. But, had he been there, and had I tried to save him and failed, do you know that for this treachery Roche–Mauprat could not have provided any instrument of torture cruel enough and slow enough to drag the life out of me inch by inch? For all I know, they may actually have heard my vow; I proclaimed it loudly enough. But what do I care? I set little store by a couple of days more or less of life. But I do set some store by your favour, my beauty. I don’t want to be the languishing knight that every one laughs at. Come, now, love me at once; or, my word, I will return to the fight, and if I am killed, so much the worse for you. You will no longer have a knight to help you, and you will still have seven Mauprats to keep at bay. I’m afraid you are not strong enough for that rough work, my pretty little love-bird.”
These words, which I threw out at random, merely to distract her attention so that I might seize her hands or her waist, made a deep impression on her. She fled to the other end of the hall, and tried to force open the window; but her little hands could not even move the heavy leaden sash in the rusty ironwork. Her efforts made me laugh. She clasped her hands in terror, and remained motionless. Then all at once the expression of her face changed. She seemed to have resolved how to act, and came toward me smiling and with outstretched hand. So beautiful was she thus that a mist came over my eyes and for a moment I saw her not.
Ah, gentlemen, forgive my childishness. I must tell you how she was dressed. After that weird night she never wore that costume again, and yet I can remember it so exactly. It is a long, long time ago. But were I to live as long as I have already lived again, I should not forget a single detail, so much was I struck by it amid the tumult that was raging within me and without; amid the din of shots striking the ramparts, the lightning flashes ripping the sky, and the violent palpitations which sent my blood surging from my heart to my brain, and from my head to my breast.
Oh, how lovely she was! It seems as if her shade were even now passing before my eyes. Yes; I fancy I see her in the same dress, the riding-habit which used to be worn in those days. The skirt of it was of cloth and very full; round the waist was a red sash, while a waistcoat of pearl-gray satin, fastened with buttons, fitted closely to the figure; over this was a hunting-jacket, trimmed with lace, short and open in front; the hat, of gray felt, with a broad brim turned up in front, was crowned with half a dozen red feathers. The hair, which was not powdered, was drawn back from the face and fell down in two long plaits, like those of the Bernese women. Edmee’s were so long that they almost reached the ground.
Her garb, to me so strangely fascinating, her youth and beauty, and the favour with which she now seemed to regard my pretensions, combined to make me mad with love and joy. I could imagine nothing more beautiful than a lovely woman yielding without coarse words, and without tears of shame. My first impulse was to take her in my arms; but, as if overcome by that irresistible longing to worship which characterizes a first love, even with the grossest of beings, I fell down before her and pressed her knees to my breast; and yet, on my own supposition, it was to a shameless wanton that this homage was paid. I was none the less nigh to swooning from bliss.
She took my head between her two beautiful hands, and exclaimed:
“Ah, I was right! I knew quite well that you were not one of those reprobates. You are going to save me, aren’t you? Thank God! How I thank you, O God! Must we jump from the window? Oh, I am not afraid; come — come!”
I seemed as if awakened from a dream, and, I confess, the awakening was not a little painful.
“What does this mean?” I asked, as I rose to my feet. “Are you still jesting with me? Do you not know where you are? Do you think that I am a child?”
“I know that I am at Roche–Mauprat,” she replied, turning pale again, “and that I shall be outraged and assassinated in a couple of hours, if meanwhile I do not succeed in inspiring you with some pity. But I shall succeed,” she cried, falling at my feet in her turn; “you are not one of those men. You are too young to be a monster like them. I could see from your eyes that you pitied me. You will help me to escape, won’t you, won’t you, my dear heart?”
She took my hands and kissed them frenziedly, in the hope of moving me. I listened and looked at her with a sullen stupidity scarcely calculated to reassure her. My heart was naturally but little accessible to feelings of generosity and compassion, and at this moment a passion stronger than all the rest was keeping down the impulse she had striven to arouse. I devoured her with my eyes, and made no effort to understand her words. I only wished to discover whether I was pleasing to her, or whether she was trying to make use of me to effect her escape.
“I see that you are afraid,” I said. “You are wrong to be afraid of me. I shall certainly not do you any harm. You are too pretty for me to think of anything but of caressing you.”
“Yes; but your uncles will kill me,” she cried; “you know they will. Surely you would not have me killed? Since you love me, save me; I will love you afterwards.”
“Oh, yes; afterwards, afterwards,” I answered, laughing with a silly, unbelieving air; “after you have had me hanged by those gendarmes to whom I have just given such a drubbing. Come, now; prove that you love me at once; I will save you afterwards. You see, I can talk about ‘afterwards’ too.”
I pursued her round the room. Though she fled from me, she gave no signs of anger, and still appealed to me with soft words. In me the poor girl was husbanding her one hope, and was fearful of losing it. Ah, if I had only been able to realize what such a woman as she was, and what my own position meant! But I was unable then. I had but one fixed idea — the idea which a wolf may have on a like occasion.
At last, as my only answer to all her entreaties was, “Do you love me, or are you fooling me?” she saw what a brute she had to deal with, and, making up her mind accordingly, she came towards me, threw her arms round my neck, hid her face in my bosom, and let me kiss her hair. Then she put me gently from her, saying:
“Ah, mon Dieu! don’t you see how I love you — how I could not help loving you from the very first moment I saw you? But don’t you understand that I hate your uncles, and that I would be yours alone?”
“Yes,” I replied, obstinately, “because you say to yourself: ‘This is a booby whom I shall persuade to do anything I wish, by telling him that I love him; he will believe it, and I will take him away to be hanged.’ Come; there is only one word which will serve if you love me.”
She looked at me with an agonized air. I sought to press my lips to hers whenever her head was not turned away. I held her hands in mine. She was powerless now to do more than delay the hour of her defeat. Suddenly the colour rushed back to the pale face; she began to smile; and with an expression of angelic coquetry, she asked:
“And you — do you love me?”
From this moment the victory was hers. I no longer had power to will what I wished. The lynx in me was subdued; the man rose in its place; and I believe that my voice had a human ring, as I cried for the first time in my life:
“Yes, I love you! Yes, I love you!”
“Well, then,” she said, distractedly, and in a caressing tone, “let us love each other and escape together.”
“Yes, let us escape,” I answered. “I loathe this house, and I loathe my uncles. I have long wanted to escape. And yet I shall only be hanged, you know.”
“They won’t hang you,” she rejoined with a laugh; “my betrothed is a lieutenant-general.”
“Your betrothed!” I cried, in a fresh fit of jealousy more violent than the first. “You are going to be married?”
“And why not?” she replied, watching me attentively.
I turned pale and clinched my teeth.
“In that case, . . .” I said, trying to carry her off in my arms.
“In that case,” she answered, giving me a little tap on the cheek, “I see that you are jealous; but his must be a particular jealousy who at ten o’clock yearns for his mistress, only to hand her over at midnight to eight drunken men who will return her to him on the morrow as foul as the mud on the roads.”
“Ah, you are right!” I exclaimed. “Go, then; go. I would defend you to the last drop of my blood; but I should be vanquished by numbers, and I should die with the knowledge that you were left to them. How horrible! I shudder to think of it. Come — you must go.”
“Yes! yes, my angel!” she cried, kissing me passionately on the cheek.
These caresses, the first a woman had given me since my childhood, recalled, I know not how or why, my mother’s last kiss, and, instead of pleasure, caused me profound sadness. I felt my eyes filling with tears. Noticing this, she kissed my tears, repeating the while:
“Save me! Save me!”
“And your marriage?” I asked. “Oh! listen. Swear that you will not marry before I die. You will not have to wait long; for my uncles administer sound justice and swift, as they say.”
“You are not going to follow me, then?” she asked.
“Follow you? No; it is as well to be hanged here for helping you to escape as to be hanged yonder for being a bandit. Here, at least, I avoid a twofold shame: I shall not be accounted an informer, and shall not be hanged in a public place.”
“I will not leave you here,” she cried, “though I die myself. Fly with me. You run no risk, believe me. Before God, I declare you are safe. Kill me, if I lie. But let us start — quickly. O God! I hear them singing. They are coming this way. Ah, if you will not defend me, kill me at once!”
She threw herself into my arms. Love and jealousy were gradually overpowering me. Indeed, I even thought seriously of killing her; and I kept my hand on my hunting-knife as long as I heard any noise or voices near the hall. They were exulting in their victory. I cursed Heaven for not giving it to our foes. I clasped Edmee to my breast, and we remained motionless in each other’s arms, until a fresh report announced that the fight was beginning again. Then I pressed her passionately to my heart.
“You remind me,” I said, “of a poor little dove which one day flew into my jacket to escape from a kite, and tried to hide itself in my bosom.”
“And you did not give it up to the kite, did you?” asked Edmee.
“No, by all the devils! not any more than I shall give you up, you, the prettiest of all the birds in the woods, to these vile night-birds that are threatening you.”
“But how shall we escape?” she cried, terror-stricken by the volleys they were firing.
“Easily,” I said. “Follow me.”
I seized a torch, and lifting a trap-door, I made her descend with me to the cellar. Thence we passed into a subterranean passage hollowed out of the rock. This, in bygone days had enabled the garrison, then more numerous, to venture upon an important move in case of an attack; some of the besieged would emerge into the open country on the side opposite the portcullis and fall on the rear of the besiegers, who were thus caught between two fires. But many years had passed since the garrison of Roche–Mauprat was large enough to be divided into two bodies; and besides, during the night it would have been folly to venture beyond the walls. We arrived, therefore, at the exit of the passage without meeting with any obstacle. But at the last moment I was seized with a fit of madness. I threw down my torch, and leaned against the door.
“You shall not go out from here,” I said to the trembling Edmee, “without promising to be mine.”
We were in darkness; the noise of the fight no longer reached us. Before any one could surprise us here we had ample time to escape. Everything was in my favour. Edmee was now at the mercy of my caprice. When she saw that the seductions of her beauty could no longer rouse me to ecstasy, she ceased to implore, and drew backward a few steps.
“Open the door,” she said, “and go out first, or I will kill myself. See, I have your hunting-knife. You left it by the side of the trap-door. To return to your uncles you will have to walk through my blood.”
Her resolute manner frightened me.
“Give me that knife,” I said, “or, be the consequences what they may, I will take it from you by force.”
“Do you think I am afraid to die?” she said calmly. “If this knife had only been in my hand yonder in the chateau, I should not have humbled myself before you.”
“Confound it!” I cried, “you have deceived me. Your love is a sham. Begone! I despise you. I will not follow such as you.”
At the same time I opened the door.
“I would not go without you,” she cried; “and you — you would not have me go without dishonour. Which of us is the more generous?”
“You are mad,” I said. “You have lied to me; and you do not know what to do to make a fool of me. However, you shall not go out from here without swearing that your marriage with the lieutenant-general or any other man shall not take place before you have been my mistress.”
“Your mistress!” she said. “Are you dreaming? Could you not at least soften the insult by saying your wife?”
“That is what any one of my uncles would say in my place; because they would care only about your dowry. But I— I yearn for nothing but your beauty. Swear, then, that you will be mine first; afterwards you shall be free, on my honour. And if my jealousy prove so fierce that it may not be borne, well, since a man may not go from his word, I will blow my brains out.”
“I swear,” said Edmee, “to be no man’s before being yours.”
“That is not it. Swear to be mine before being any other’s.”
“It is the same thing,” she answered. “Yes; I swear it.”
“On the gospel? On the name of Christ? By the salvation of your soul? By the memory of your mother?”
“On the gospel; in the name of Christ; by the salvation of my soul; by the memory of my mother.”
“One moment,” she rejoined; “I want you to swear that my promise and its fulfilment shall remain a secret; that my father shall never know it, or any person who might tell him.”
“No one in the world shall hear it from me. Why should I want others to know, provided only that you keep your word?”
She made me repeat the formula of an oath. Then we hurried forth into the open, holding each other’s hands as a sign of mutual trust.
But now our flight became dangerous. Edmee feared the besiegers almost as much as the besieged. We were fortunate enough not to meet any. Still, it was by no means easy to move quickly. The night was so dark that we were continually running against trees, and the ground was so slippery that we were unable to avoid falls. A sudden noise made us start; but, from the rattle of the chain fixed on its foot, I immediately recognised my grandfather’s horse, an animal of an extraordinary age, but still strong and spirited. It was the very horse that had brought me to Roche–Mauprat ten years before. At present the only thing that would serve as a bridle was the rope round its neck. I passed this through its mouth, and I threw my jacket over the crupper and helped my companion to mount; I undid the chain, sprang on the animal’s back, and urging it on desperately, made it set off at a gallop, happen what might. Luckily for us, it knew the paths better than I, and, as if by instinct, followed their windings without knocking against any trees. However, it frequently slipped, and in recovering itself, gave us such jolts that we should have lost our seats a thousand times (equipped as we were) had we not been hanging between life and death. In such a strait desperate ventures are best, and God protects those whom man pursues. We were congratulating ourselves on being out of danger, when all at once the horse struck against a stump, and catching his hoof in a root on the ground, fell down. Before we were up he had made off into the darkness, and I could hear him galloping farther and farther away. As we fell I had caught Edmee in my arms. She was unhurt. My own ankle, however, was sprained so severely that it was impossible for me to move a step. Edmee thought that my leg had been broken. I was inclined to think so myself, so great was the pain; but soon I thought no further either of my agony or my anxiety. Edmee’s tender solicitude made me forget everything. It was in vain that I urged her to continue her flight without me. I pointed out that she could now escape alone; that we were some distance from the chateau; that day would soon be breaking; that she would be certain to find some house, and that everywhere the people would protect her against the Mauprats.
“I will not leave you,” she persisted in answering. “You have devoted yourself to me; I will show the same devotion to you. We will both escape, or we will die together.”
“I am not mistaken,” I cried; “it is a light that I see between the branches. Edmee, there is a house yonder; go and knock at the door. You need not feel anxious about leaving me here; and you will find a guide to take you home.”
“Whatever happens,” she said, “I will not leave you; but I will try to find some one to help you.”
“Yet, no,” I said, “I will not let you knock at that door alone. That light, in the middle of the night, in a house situated in the heart of the woods, may be a lure.”
I dragged myself as far as the door. It felt cold, as if of metal. The walls were covered with ivy.
“Who is there?” cried some one within, before we had knocked.
“We are saved!” cried Edmee; “it is Patience’s voice.”
“We are lost!” I said; “he and I are mortal enemies.
“Fear nothing,” she said; “follow me. It was God that led us here.”
“Yes, it was God that led you here, daughter of Heaven, morning star!” said Patience, opening the door; “and whoever is with you is welcome too at Gazeau Tower.”
We entered under a surbased vault, in the middle of which hung an iron lamp. By the light of this dismal luminary and of a handful of brushwood which was blazing on the hearth we saw, not without surprise, that Gazeau Tower was exceptionally honoured with visitors. On one side the light fell upon the pale and serious face of a man in clerical garb. On the other, a broad-brimmed hat overshadowed a sort of olive-green cone terminating in a scanty beard; and on the wall could be seen the shadow of a nose so distinctly tapered that nothing in the world might compare with it except, perhaps, a long rapier lying across the knees of the personage in question, and a little dog’s face which, from its pointed shape, might have been mistaken for that of a gigantic rat. In fact, it seemed as if a mysterious harmony reigned between these three salient points — the nose of Don Marcasse, his dog’s snout, and the blade of his sword. He got up slowly and raised his hand to his hat. The Jansenist cure did the same. The dog thrust its head forward between its master’s legs, and, silent like him, showed its teeth and put back its ears without barking.
“Quiet, Blaireau!” said Marcasse to it.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13