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The Maid of Honour: A Tale of the Dark Days of France. Vol. 2 (of 3),
Part #2 of The Maid of Honour: A Tale of the Dark Days of France series by Lewis Wingfield
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THE MAID OF HONOUR
THE MAID OF HONOUR
A Tale of the Dark Days of France
THE HON. LEWIS WINGFIELD
"LADY GRIZEL," "THE LORDS OF STROGUE," "ABIGEL ROWE"
_IN THREE VOLUMES_ VOL. II.
LONDON RICHARD BENTLEY AND SON Publishers in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen.
[_All Rights Reserved_]
WILLIAM HENRY WELDON.
OF OLD FRIENDSHIP.
Diamond Cut Diamond.
The Situation Changes.
The Abbe is Terribly Perplexed.
Gabrielle has an Idea.
A Council Of War.
THE MAID OF HONOUR.
The abbe's departure left a void in the household. He had grown to beso conspicuous and necessary a feature in it that even Gabrielleregretted his mercurial presence, while conscious of a feeling ofrelief in that he no more pursued her. It was but a temporary respite,she knew. He would return ere long, renew the siege, demand an answer.What that answer was to be, she did not feel certain. Her interest inherself had gone. She missed the readings, the soft declamation of themusical voice; for, left more alone than ever, her mind broodedwithout distraction on the past and the tangled possibilities of thefuture. The chevalier's attentions were rather irksome than otherwise,for his conversational powers were limited. His position was that ofwatchdog, and, as all the world knows, watch-dogs are expected towatch and not to talk. He was content to sit staring with vacant eyesat his sister-in-law for an unlimited period, breathing very hard andemitting strong fumes of spirits with a meaningless but complacentexpression of conscious rectitude. He was doing his duty, and knew it.Since his rebuff on that moonlight night, now long ago, he had seemedin his slow way to have become possessed by a fixed idea. The prizewas not for him. His brother had behaved magnanimously in permittinghim to try first for it. Having failed--as he might have known hewould--he must keep his promise, and assist him in the chase to thebest of his abilities.
He was a remarkable man, his brother, of that he had been convincedfor years, who was destined to have his will in all things; and quiteright, too, for commanding genius should surely achieve success.
Dreary fat Phebus! Lulled by the monotonous life at Lorge, the littleintellect he possessed had gone to sleep. Now and again he had salliedforth to shoot with the gamekeeper, but could never hit it off withhim. His oracular remarks were met by silence. Jean Boulot treated himwith a sullen and enforced politeness, and it dawned on his sluggishmind by slow degrees that the gamekeeper heartily despised him. Hedespised by a common country peasant, who, instead of sneering, shouldhave been grateful to be noticed by a half-brother of the Marquis deGange! The position was so unsatisfactory that the chevalier gave upthe chase. He also gave up riding, for his horse would take thedirection of Montbazon, the welcome of whose inmates frightened him.Angelique looked so wistful, and the old lady was so effusivelyhospitable that he quite trembled in his shoes lest he should wake upsome morning and find that he was married.
Moping about with no occupation either for mind or body, it wasnatural that he should have fallen into the trap which is prepared forthe idle and empty-pated; that he should while away the laggard hoursin the company of the best cognac.
Time hung very heavy on the hands of neglected Gabrielle. Toinon was asweet girl who strove by many little acts to comfort her strickenheart; but the pride of the chatelaine stood between herself andToinon. It was bitter to expose her wrongs to the tender touch of aloving foster-sister. Even when engaged on missions to the sick poor,of whom, alack, there were far too many, she could not keep her mindfrom brooding. "What was, and what might have been," formed a dismalrefrain that was for ever ringing in her ears.
The abbe remained a long time absent. His letters were full ofinterest, though not particularly cheerful. He appeared to have cometo the conclusion that affairs in the capital were not improving. "Theking is much to blame," he wrote, "while the queen is rash, and thecombination is not fortuitous." He told of the strange and aggressiveproceedings of that impudent body, the National Assembly, of thetreasonous language employed by some of its members. These impertinentrascals babbled of the Rights of Man in a manner which, to one ofsuperior birth, was disgusting. He related that their majesties hadbeen forcibly taken from Versailles and bidden to dwell in themetropolis, and told stories of Monsieur de Lafayette, whose conductwas the more to be regretted in that he was himself a noble. He hadactually proclaimed in a public seance of the rabble who directedaffairs, that, "When oppression renders a revolution necessary,insurrection is the most sacred of duties." Good heavens! what next?Political societies had thrown off the mantle of secrecy and openlyparaded their abominable sentiments. The "Society of the Jacobins"bade fair to be a dangerous element in the future, although a rivalclub called the Feuillans had recently been established tocounterbalance its baleful influence. Altogether, Pharamond, who wasusually so lively, looked at events through darkened spectacles.
The abbe had duly presented his credentials to the Marechal de Breze,who had been effusively civil and had wearied him with endlessquestions about his daughter's happiness. The life at Lorge must beArcadian, he had declared with satisfaction, or the lovely chatelainewould have returned to the capital long since.
Why, suggested the abbe, did he not make a pilgrimage to visit her?
No, he had replied, shaking his venerable head; happiness was afragile thing that must not be disturbed. The advent of an old man andan old woman would be like the throwing of a stone into a tarn. He wascontent to know that Gabrielle was happy, and to write and receiveletters. Moreover, he did not wish his darling to return to Paris inits present chaotic state.
These letters of Pharamond's were mumbled out at breakfast by thechevalier.
Clovis had resumed his habit of breakfasting alone--moreover, politicsbored him; but mademoiselle made a point of being present, afterhaving given
Gabrielle seldom spoke. She seemed in a despondent daze which provokedthe observant governess. Was the silly creature going out of her mind?Those who are unable to stand up for themselves deserve to besubjected to the yoke. Aglae's fingers itched to slap the marquise,or give her a sound shaking. But she had been lectured by the abbebefore he left, was aware that the dog was watching, and knew that itbehoved her to be prudent; not to quarrel with her ally at present. Asto Gabrielle, she smiled sometimes a mysterious smile that was moresad than tears. Happy! why, her heart was slowly breaking. Nobodywanted her. Her only desire was to remain secluded--shielded bydistance from the searching glances of her father, who, with the eyesof love, could not fail to read her misery.
Autumn waned, the winter came and went, and spring came round, andstill the abbe was absent. The long evenings, when, try as she wouldto exorcise them, the procession of her sorrows danced fandangoes inthe brain of Gabrielle to the accompaniment of the chevalier'ssnoring, were becoming unendurable. How long was this martyrdom tocontinue?--how long?
The cold winds had softened their rigour; the air was growing balmy.There were voices down below in half-whispered converse. Moving to theopen window, Gabrielle looked out. How calm and sweet an evening! Howplacidly the river flowed past the feet of the gloomy castle! Howgently the boughs waved opposite beyond the stream to the rhythm ofthe breeze!
Under the windows of the grand saloon there was a sort of narrowgangway which acted as penthouse to the grilled windows of thedungeons on the water's edge. In old times it had been used as aplatform for embarkation in boats, but now it was trodden by few feet,for its flags were slimy and treacherous. The voices were those ofJean and Toinon, who were apparently indulging in a delightfulflirtation. They had been out rowing. The clumsy wherry used by thefamily was moored to a ring a few yards distant. The lovers wereexchanging delicious confidences before parting for the night.
Lovers billing and cooing in the moonlight, discoursing, doubtless, onthe happiness they should certainly enjoy when married. They believedin human happiness, and looked forward to a future! Gabrielle laugheda hoarse laugh that frightened her, and she retreated to the boudoirin a feverish tingle. What was there to-night that made her feel moredesolate than usual? She must be unwell, for her nerves were twangingso that she could not sit still a moment. The children were asleep bythis time, for mademoiselle was very careful of them. She deserved, atleast, that justice. Asleep and dreaming--not of her; for she rarelysaw them now at all, except gambolling like kids in the distance. Shefelt suddenly impelled to be near the treasures over whom her soulyearned so sorely. She could not see them, of course, for had notmademoiselle made her understand long since that in the nursery sheheld no authority? The dear ones. Thank God they were happy! She wouldcreep out in the spring air and kiss the wall behind which thechildren lay! Almost guiltily she took up a silken wrap with tremblingfingers and stole forth. It was well the chevalier was in a boozysleep, or he would insist on following, and in his presence she wouldhave been ashamed to gratify her whim. Away, across the inner yard,through the postern door, of which she wore a golden key upon abracelet, along the trim alleys of the moat garden to the extremeright wing of the two floors of which mademoiselle had takenpossession. As we know, she established herself on arrival in therooms below the salon; but later, under pretext that it was damp, hadremoved herself and her charges. In the chamber now used as nurseryshe had caused a window to be pierced, so as to give access to thegarden moat It was so much better for the children, she had pleaded,to be able to dance out at once upon the sunlit grass instead ofthreading darksome corridors. How thoughtful! Of course she was right,as usual. Clovis was enchanted with her attention to details, and thewindow was made forthwith.
A ray of light streamed across the sward. Strange. The casement wasopen. How imprudent, and the dear ones in bed! In hot and anxiouswrath Gabrielle was about to rush forward and remonstrate, when hersteps were stayed. They were not in bed, for she could detect theirvoices prattling with the marquis and their governess. Stealingstealthily nearer she peeped in. Through her breast there shot a painso sharp that she almost hoped to die. An affecting family group, ofwhich _she_ should have been the centre--her legitimate place usurpedby that wicked cruel woman! while she, the mistress of the house, wasshivering without in the night air! A pariah--a leper--a loathsomething--cast without the gates. What had she done--what had shedone--to deserve this dreadful fate? The marquis was reclining in alow chair, with the complacent calm that comfort brings, while Aglae,bending over, was carefully bandaging his hand. With what tendernessshe folded and tightened the linen. He had injured himself in someslight way with a broken bottle, and was smilingly watching her workwhilst hearkening to the babble of the little ones who, in waddeddressing-gowns, were toasting their pink toes before the fire.
"You are so good to all of us," softly remarked Clovis. "Camille andVictor, say, do you appreciate mademoiselle?"
"I try to be a mother to them," was her calm response.
A mother! Clovis sighed and frowned, while the children cried out withblithe accord, "Aglae? of course we love her."
Camille, stealing up behind, passed her tiny arms about the portlywaist, while Aglae said, quietly, "Be still, my pet, or you will makeme hurt your father."
Victor--a wise boy--wagged his head sagely at the hissing hearth, andannounced his conviction, "That mademoiselle had come down fromheaven. But, never mind," he added, "when she gets back she'll have ahigher place than before, on such a nice and pearly cloud."
"How's that?" asked the marquis, amused.
"You'll have a nice place, too," continued the urchin. "Every eveningwhen I say my prayers, I ask heaven to be good to papa andmademoiselle."
The marquise staggered away with fingers tight clasped over dry andburning eyes. "They are complete without me," she moaned, panting likea hunted animal. "There is no place for me! no place in all theworld!"
She tottered along the surrounding belt of green like one struckblind, till she came to the end where the moat was closed against theriver.
"No place for me! no place for me!" Gabrielle muttered, with teeththat chattered as do those of one in an ague fit. Swaying to and froshe looked into the water and discerned the black bulk of the wherry.A luminous idea shot across her mind. If the boat were found driftingdown the stream with naught but a silken wrap in it, they would dragthe Loire for the missing chatelaine, and, at least, pretend to besorry for the accident. Yes! an accident--that was the solution of thedifficulty. Her father would deplore her death, but would never knowthat she had brought it about herself. Why had this never occurred toher before? The marechal would grieve, but would get over it; for thegrief of the old is short-lived, and are not the dead at rest? Happydead to sleep so sound. She soon would be one of the shadowyphalanx--at rest for evermore.
Taking a hasty survey of the scene she stepped into the boat andloosed the chain. There was none to look on her, save the blank eyesof the dark chateau. In its history what was a life--an intolerablyweary life? Was not its memory green concerning the water-dungeon andthe torture-chamber?
"For me there is no place in all the world," repeated the chatteringjaws as the boat shot into midstream. As it chanced there were fourhuman eyes watching that she wist not of.
Jean and Toinon were not gone, though they had retreated into shadow.At sound of the loosening chain the latter had shuddered and hiddenher face on the ample breast close by.
"Dungeon ghosts--rattling their gyves," Jean observed, quietly."See--there's another yonder."
Toinon looked up and held her breath. In the broad moonbeams a womanstood erect in a boat! A woman, who slowly divested herself of adrapery and arranged it carefully upon the seat. Then she placed afoot upon the gunwale and deliberately plunged into the stream.
It was all so unexpected--so sudden--that the two stood paralysed.Both knew the slim figure well.
Jean muttered with contempt: "The useless imbecile," and, disengaginghimself from Toinon's encircling arms, leapt from the platform intothe water. Breathless and proud of him, Toinon watched his strongstrokes as they clove the oily surface. He had hold of her--thank God!and was bearing his burthen to the bank.
There was a hubbub and an outcry in the house approaching nearer.Clovis and the chevalier appeared at a window shouting madly: "Saveher!" The marquis disappeared from the balcony, and touching a spring,vanished down a secret staircase which gave upon the slippery gangway,accompanied by Mademoiselle Brunelle, who with a new care upon herbrow was swiftly following his lead. De Gange received the inanimateburthen into his arms, while tears poured down his face. "God blessyou, Jean," he sobbed, "God bless you. I will never forget this deed.She will live--she has but swooned. Jean, you have saved her fromdeath--me from a life-long remorse."
Aglae's clouded visage grew more perplexed as he took roughly from herthe mantle she had cast over her shoulders to wrap it round hisdripping burthen.
"He takes my cloak," she muttered, "not caring if I feel cold!"
"Aglae, feel," he whispered anxiously. "Am I not right? Does not herpulse still beat?"
Mademoiselle Brunelle roused herself from astonished reverie to attendto the exigencies of the moment. "Yes," she declared, withauthoritative promptitude. "The poor crazy lady lives. Toinon, warm abed without delay. Jean, take horse at once and fetch a doctor. We twowill see to her meanwhile."
Moaning and shaking, the scared and palsied chevalier stood helplessby, wringing his hands together. "She went in the boat alone, poorthing," he whimpered, "because she could not trust me. Oh! that fatalnight--that fatal night! Of course she would not trust me."
Meanwhile, the marquis and his affinity bore their burthen up thewinding stair. Neither spoke till they reached the saloon and laid theunconscious marquise upon a couch. Then Aglae, more perplexed thanever, sighed.
"Thank God, she's saved; thank God!" Clovis murmured, fervently.
"Who would have ever thought," reflected the governess aloud, "that solong-suffering and useless piece of goods could be goaded to take herlife?"
"Hush!" shuddered the marquis. "Ever after I should have deemed myselfher murderer!"
"A thousand pities," mused mademoiselle. "If he had only let herdrown, at this moment you would be free."
Clovis looked up in horror, blanched to the pallor of a statue.
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