"Let me see," he thought to himself, as the coucou went down the hill from La Chapelle to the plain of Saint-Denis, "shall I pass myself off for Etienne or Beranger? No, these idiots don't know who they are. Carbonaro? the deuce! I might get myself arrested. Suppose I say I'm the son of Marshal Ney? Pooh! what could I tell them?—about the execution of my father? It wouldn't be funny. Better be a disguised Russian prince and make them swallow a lot of stuff about the Emperor Alexander. Or I might be Cousin, and talk philosophy; oh, couldn't I perplex 'em! But no, that shabby fellow with the tousled head looks to me as if he had jogged his way through the Sorbonne. What a pity! I can mimic an Englishman so perfectly I might have pretended to be Lord Byron, travelling incognito. Sapristi! I'll command the troops of Ali, pacha of Janina!"
During this mental monologue, the coucou rolled through clouds of dust rising on either side of it from that much travelled road.
"What dust!" cried Mistigris.
"Henry IV. is dead!" retorted his master. "If you'd say it was scented with vanilla that would be emitting a new opinion."
"You think you're witty," replied Mistigris. "Well, it is like vanilla at times."
"In the Levant—" said Georges, with the air of beginning a story.
"'Ex Oriente flux,'" remarked Mistigris's master, interrupting the speaker.
"I said in the Levant, from which I have just returned," continued Georges, "the dust smells very good; but here it smells of nothing, except in some old dust-barrel like this."
"Has monsieur lately returned from the Levant?" said Mistigris, maliciously. "He isn't much tanned by the sun."
"Oh! I've just left my bed after an illness of three months, from the germ, so the doctors said, of suppressed plague."
"Have you had the plague?" cried the count, with a gesture of alarm. "Pierrotin, stop!"
"Go on, Pierrotin," said Mistigris. "Didn't you hear him say it was inward, his plague?" added the rapin, talking back to Monsieur de Serizy. "It isn't catching; it only comes out in conversation."
"Mistigris! if you interfere again I'll have you put off into the road," said his master. "And so," he added, turning to Georges, "monsieur has been to the East?"
"Yes, monsieur; first to Egypt, then to Greece, where I served under Ali, pacha of Janina, with whom I had a terrible quarrel. There's no enduring those climates long; besides, the emotions of all kinds in Oriental life have disorganized my liver."
"What, have you served as a soldier?" asked the fat farmer. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-nine," replied Georges, whereupon all the passengers looked at him. "At eighteen I enlisted as a private for the famous campaign of 1813; but I was present at only one battle, that of Hanau, where I was promoted sergeant-major. In France, at Montereau, I won the rank of sub-lieutenant, and was decorated by,—there are no informers here, I'm sure,—by the Emperor."
"What! are you decorated?" cried Oscar. "Why don't you wear your cross?"
"The cross of 'ceux-ci'? No, thank you! Besides, what man of any breeding would wear his decorations in travelling? There's monsieur," he said, motioning to the Comte de Serizy. "I'll bet whatever you like—"
"Betting whatever you like means, in France, betting nothing at all," said Mistigris's master.
"I'll bet whatever you like," repeated Georges, incisively, "that monsieur here is covered with stars."
"Well," said the count, laughing, "I have the grand cross of the Legion of honor, that of Saint Andrew of Russia, that of the Prussian Eagle, that of the Annunciation of Sardinia, and the Golden Fleece."
"Beg pardon," said Mistigris, "are they all in the coucou?"
"Hey! that brick-colored old fellow goes it strong!" whispered Georges to Oscar. "What was I saying?—oh! I know. I don't deny that I adore the Emperor—"
"I served under him," said the count.
"What a man he was, wasn't he?" cried Georges.
"A man to whom I owe many obligations," replied the count, with a silly expression that was admirably assumed.
"For all those crosses?" inquired Mistigris.
"And what quantities of snuff he took!" continued Monsieur de Serizy.
"He carried it loose in his pockets," said Georges.
"So I've been told," remarked Pere Leger with an incredulous look.
"Worse than that; he chewed and smoked," continued Georges. "I saw him smoking, in a queer way, too, at Waterloo, when Marshal Soult took him round the waist and flung him into his carriage, just as he had seized a musket and was going to charge the English—"
"You were at Waterloo!" cried Oscar, his eyes stretching wide open.
"Yes, young man, I did the campaign of 1815. I was a captain at Mont-Saint-Jean, and I retired to the Loire, after we were all disbanded. Faith! I was disgusted with France; I couldn't stand it. In fact, I should certainly have got myself arrested; so off I went, with two or three dashing fellows,—Selves, Besson, and others, who are now in Egypt,—and we entered the service of pacha Mohammed; a queer sort of fellow he was, too! Once a tobacco merchant in the bazaars, he is now on the high-road to be a sovereign prince. You've all seen him in that picture by Horace Vernet,—'The Massacre of the Mameluks.' What a handsome fellow he was! But I wouldn't give up the religion of my fathers and embrace Islamism; all the more because the abjuration required a surgical operation which I hadn't any fancy for. Besides, nobody respects a renegade. Now if they had offered me a hundred thousand francs a year, perhaps—and yet, no! The pacha did give me a thousand talari as a present."
"How much is that?" asked Oscar, who was listening to Georges with all his ears.
"Oh! not much. A talaro is, as you might say, a five-franc piece. But faith! I got no compensation for the vices I contracted in that God-forsaken country, if country it is. I can't live now without smoking a narghile twice a-day, and that's very costly."
"How did you find Egypt?" asked the count.
"Egypt? Oh! Egypt is all sand," replied Georges, by no means taken aback. "There's nothing green but the valley of the Nile. Draw a green line down a sheet of yellow paper, and you have Egypt. But those Egyptians—fellahs they are called—have an immense advantage over us. There are no gendarmes in that country. You may go from end to end of Egypt, and you won't see one."
"But I suppose there are a good many Egyptians," said Mistigris.
"Not as many as you think for," replied Georges. "There are many more Abyssinians, and Giaours, and Vechabites, Bedouins, and Cophs. But all that kind of animal is very uninteresting, and I was glad enough to embark on a Genoese polacca which was loading for the Ionian Islands with gunpowder and munitions for Ali de Tebelen. You know, don't you, that the British sell powder and munitions of war to all the world,—Turks, Greeks, and the devil, too, if the devil has money? From Zante we were to skirt the coasts of Greece and tack about, on and off. Now it happens that my name of Georges is famous in that country. I am, such as you see me, the grandson of the famous Czerni-Georges who made war upon the Porte, and, instead of crushing it, as he meant to do, got crushed himself. His son took refuge in the house of the French consul at Smyrna, and he afterwards died in Paris, leaving my mother pregnant with me, his seventh child. Our property was all stolen by friends of my grandfather; in fact, we were ruined. My mother, who lived on her diamonds, which she sold one by one, married, in 1799, my step-father, Monsieur Yung, a purveyor. But my mother is dead, and I have quarrelled with my step-father, who, between ourselves, is a blackguard; he is still alive, but I never see him. That's why, in despair, left all to myself, I went off to the wars as a private in 1813. Well, to go back to the time I returned to Greece; you wouldn't believe with what joy old Ali Tebelen received the grandson of Czerni-Georges. Here, of course, I call myself simply Georges. The pacha gave me a harem—"
"You have had a harem?" said Oscar.
"Were you a pacha with many tails?" asked Mistigris.
"How is it that you don't know," replied Georges, "that only the Sultan makes pachas, and that my friend Tebelen (for we were as friendly as Bourbons) was in rebellion against the Padishah! You know, or you don't know, that the true title of the Grand Seignior is Padishah, and not Sultan or Grand Turk. You needn't think that a harem is much of a thing; you might as well have a herd of goats. The women are horribly stupid down there; I much prefer the grisettes of the Chaumieres at Mont-Parnasse."
"They are nearer, at any rate," said the count.
"The women of the harem couldn't speak a word of French, and that language is indispensable for talking. Ali gave me five legitimate wives and ten slaves; that's equivalent to having none at all at Janina. In the East, you must know, it is thought very bad style to have wives and women. They have them, just as we have Voltaire and Rousseau; but who ever opens his Voltaire or his Rousseau? Nobody. But, for all that, the highest style is to be jealous. They sew a woman up in a sack and fling her into the water on the slightest suspicion,—that's according to their Code."
"Did you fling any in?" asked the farmer.
"I, a Frenchman! for shame! I loved them."
Whereupon Georges twirled and twisted his moustache with a dreamy air.
They were now entering Saint-Denis, and Pierrotin presently drew up before the door of a tavern where were sold the famous cheese-cakes of that place. All the travellers got out. Puzzled by the apparent truth mingled with Georges' inventions, the count returned to the coucou when the others had entered the house, and looked beneath the cushion for the portfolio which Pierrotin told him that enigmatical youth had placed there. On it he read the words in gilt letters: "Maitre Crottat, notary." The count at once opened it, and fearing, with some reason, that Pere Leger might be seized with the same curiosity, he took out the deed of sale for the farm at Moulineaux, put it into his coat pocket, and entered the inn to keep an eye on the travellers.
"This Georges is neither more nor less than Crottat's second clerk," thought he. "I shall pay my compliments to his master, whose business it was to send me his head-clerk."
From the respectful glances of Pere Leger and Oscar, Georges perceived that he had made for himself two fervent admirers. Accordingly, he now posed as a great personage; paid for their cheese-cakes, and ordered for each a glass of Alicante. He offered the same to Mistigris and his master, who refused with smiles; but the friend of Ali Tebelen profited by the occasion to ask the pair their names.
"Oh! monsieur," said Mistigris' master, "I am not blessed, like you, with an illustrious name; and I have not returned from Asia—"
At this moment the count, hastening into the huge inn-kitchen lest his absence should excite inquiry, entered the place in time to hear the conclusion of the young man's speech.
"—I am only a poor painter lately returned from Rome, where I went at the cost of the government, after winning the 'grand prix' five years ago. My name is Schinner."
"Hey! bourgeois, may I offer you a glass of Alicante and some cheese-cakes?" said Georges to the count.
"Thank you," replied the latter. "I never leave home without taking my cup of coffee and cream."
"Don't you eat anything between meals? How bourgeois, Marais, Place Royale, that is!" cried Georges. "When he 'blagued' just now about his crosses, I thought there was something in him," whispered the Eastern hero to the painter. "However, we'll set him going on his decorations, the old tallow-chandler! Come, my lad," he added, calling to Oscar, "drink me down the glass poured out for the chandler; that will start your moustache."
Oscar, anxious to play the man, swallowed the second glass of wine, and ate three more cheese-cakes.
"Good wine, that!" said Pere Leger, smacking his lips.
"It is all the better," said Georges, "because it comes from Bercy. I've been to Alicante myself, and I know that this wine no more resembles what is made there than my arm is like a windmill. Our made-up wines are a great deal better than the natural ones in their own country. Come, Pierrotin, take a glass! It is a great pity your horses can't take one, too; we might go faster."
"Forward, march!" cried Pierrotin, amid a mighty cracking of whips, after the travellers were again boxed up.
It was now eleven o'clock. The weather, which had been cloudy, cleared; the breeze swept off the mists, and the blue of the sky appeared in spots; so that when the coucou trundled along the narrow strip of road from Saint-Denis to Pierrefitte, the sun had fairly drunk up the last floating vapors of the diaphanous veil which swathed the scenery of that famous region.
"Well, now, tell us why you left your friend the pacha," said Pere Leger, addressing Georges.
"He was a very singular scamp," replied Georges, with an air that hid a multitude of mysteries. "He put me in command of his cavalry,—so far, so good—"
"Ah! that's why he wears spurs," thought poor Oscar.
"At that time Ali Tebelen wanted to rid himself of Chosrew pacha, another queer chap! You call him, here, Chaureff; but the name is pronounced, in Turkish, Cosserew. You must have read in the newspapers how old Ali drubbed Chosrew, and soundly, too, faith! Well, if it hadn't been for me, Ali Tebelen himself would have bit the dust two days earlier. I was at the right wing, and I saw Chosrew, an old sly-boots, thinking to force our centre,—ranks closed, stiff, swift, fine movement a la Murat. Good! I take my time; then I charge, double-quick, and cut his line in two,—you understand? Ha! ha! after the affair was over, Ali kissed me—"
"Do they do that in the East?" asked the count, in a joking way.
"Yes, monsieur," said the painter, "that's done all the world over."
"After that," continued Georges, "Ali gave me yataghans, and carbines, and scimetars, and what-not. But when we got back to his capital he made me propositions, wanted me to drown a wife, and make a slave of myself,—Orientals are so queer! But I thought I'd had enough of it; for, after all, you know, Ali was a rebel against the Porte. So I concluded I had better get off while I could. But I'll do Monsieur Tebelen the justice to say that he loaded me with presents,—diamonds, ten thousand talari, one thousand gold coins, a beautiful Greek girl for groom, a little Circassian for a mistress, and an Arab horse! Yes, Ali Tebelen, pacha of Janina, is too little known; he needs an historian. It is only in the East one meets with such iron souls, who can nurse a vengeance twenty years and accomplish it some fine morning. He had the most magnificent white beard that was ever seen, and a hard, stern face—"
"But what did you do with your treasures?" asked farmer Leger.
"Ha! that's it! you may well ask that! Those fellows down there haven't any Grand Livre nor any Bank of France. So I was forced to carry off my windfalls in a felucca, which was captured by the Turkish High-Admiral himself. Such as you see me here to-day, I came very near being impaled at Smyrna. Indeed, if it hadn't been for Monsieur de Riviere, our ambassador, who was there, they'd have taken me for an accomplice of Ali pacha. I saved my head, but, to tell the honest truth, all the rest, the ten thousand talari, the thousand gold pieces, and the fine weapons, were all, yes all, drunk up by the thirsty treasury of the Turkish admiral. My position was the more perilous because that very admiral happened to be Chosrew pacha. After I routed him, the fellow had managed to obtain a position which is equal to that of our Admiral of the Fleet—"
"But I thought he was in the cavalry?" said Pere Leger, who had followed the narrative with the deepest attention.
"Dear me! how little the East is understood in the French provinces!" cried Georges. "Monsieur, I'll explain the Turks to you. You are a farmer; the Padishah (that's the Sultan) makes you a marshal; if you don't fulfil your functions to his satisfaction, so much the worse for you, he cuts your head off; that's his way of dismissing his functionaries. A gardener is made a prefect; and the prime minister comes down to be a foot-boy. The Ottomans have no system of promotion and no hierarchy. From a cavalry officer Chosrew simply became a naval officer. Sultan Mahmoud ordered him to capture Ali by sea; and he did get hold of him, assisted by those beggarly English—who put their paw on most of the treasure. This Chosrew, who had not forgotten the riding-lesson I gave him, recognized me. You understand, my goose was cooked, oh, brown! when it suddenly came into my head to claim protection as a Frenchman and a troubadour from Monsieur de Riviere. The ambassador, enchanted to find something to show him off, demanded that I should be set at liberty. The Turks have one good trait in their nature; they are as willing to let you go as they are to cut your head off; they are indifferent to everything. The French consul, charming fellow, friend of Chosrew, made him give back two thousand of the talari, and, consequently, his name is, as I may say, graven on my heart—"
"What was his name?" asked Monsieur de Serizy; and a look of some surprise passed over his face as Georges named, correctly, one of our most distinguished consul-generals who happened at that time to be stationed at Smyrna.
"I assisted," added Georges, "at the execution of the Governor of Smyrna, whom the Sultan had ordered Chosrew to put to death. It was one of the most curious things I ever saw, though I've seen many,—I'll tell you about it when we stop for breakfast. From Smyrna I crossed to Spain, hearing there was a revolution there. I went straight to Mina, who appointed me as his aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel. I fought for the constitutional cause, which will certainly be defeated when we enter Spain—as we undoubtedly shall, some of these days—"
"You, a French soldier!" said the count, sternly. "You show extraordinary confidence in the discretion of those who are listening to you."
"But there are no spies here," said Georges.
"Are you aware, Colonel Georges," continued the count, "that the Court of Peers is at this very time inquiring into a conspiracy which has made the government extremely severe in its treatment of French soldiers who bear arms against France, and who deal in foreign intrigues for the purpose of overthrowing our legitimate sovereigns."
On hearing this stern admonition the painter turned red to his ears and looked at Mistigris, who seemed dumfounded.
"Well," said Pere Leger, "what next?"
"If," continued the count, "I were a magistrate, it would be my duty to order the gendarmes at Pierrefitte to arrest the aide-de-camp of Mina, and to summon all present in this vehicle to testify to his words."
This speech stopped Georges' narrative all the more surely, because at this moment the coucou reached the guard-house of a brigade of gendarmerie,—the white flag floating, as the orthodox saying is, upon the breeze.
"You have too many decorations to do such a dastardly thing," said Oscar.
"Never mind; we'll catch up with him soon," whispered Georges in the lad's ear.
"Colonel," cried Leger, who was a good deal disturbed by the count's outburst, and wanted to change the conversation, "in all these countries where you have been, what sort of farming do they do? How do they vary the crops?"
"Well, in the first place, my good fellow, you must understand, they are too busy cropping off each others' heads to think much of cropping the ground."
The count couldn't help smiling; and that smile reassured the narrator.
"They have a way of cultivating which you will think very queer. They don't cultivate at all; that's their style of farming. The Turks and the Greeks, they eat onions or rise. They get opium from poppies, and it gives them a fine revenue. Then they have tobacco, which grows of itself, famous latakiah! and dates! and all kinds of sweet things that don't need cultivation. It is a country full of resources and commerce. They make fine rugs at Smyrna, and not dear."
"But," persisted Leger, "if the rugs are made of wool they must come from sheep; and to have sheep you must have fields, farms, culture—"
"Well, there may be something of that sort," replied Georges. "But their chief crop, rice, grows in the water. As for me, I have only been along the coasts and seen the parts that are devastated by war. Besides, I have the deepest aversion to statistics."
"How about the taxes?" asked the farmer.
"Oh! the taxes are heavy; they take all a man has, and leave him the rest. The pacha of Egypt was so struck with the advantages of that system, that, when I came away he was on the point of organizing his own administration on that footing—"
"But," said Leger, who no longer understood a single word, "how?"
"How?" said Georges. "Why, agents go round and take all the harvests, and leave the fellahs just enough to live on. That's a system that does away with stamped papers and bureaucracy, the curse of France, hein?"
"By virtue of what right?" said Leger.
"Right? why it is a land of despotism. They haven't any rights. Don't you know the fine definition Montesquieu gives of despotism. 'Like the savage, it cuts down the tree to gather the fruits.' They don't tax, they take everything."
"And that's what our rulers are trying to bring us to. 'Tax vobiscum,'—no, thank you!" said Mistigris.
"But that is what we are coming to," said the count. "Therefore, those who own land will do well to sell it. Monsieur Schinner must have seen how things are tending in Italy, where the taxes are enormous."
"Corpo di Bacco! the Pope is laying it on heavily," replied Schinner. "But the people are used to it. Besides, Italians are so good-natured that if you let 'em murder a few travellers along the highways they're contented."
"I see, Monsieur Schinner," said the count, "that you are not wearing the decoration you obtained in 1819; it seems the fashion nowadays not to wear orders."
Mistigris and the pretended Schinner blushed to their ears.
"Well, with me," said the artist, "the case is different. It isn't on account of fashion; but I don't want to be recognized. Have the goodness not to betray me, monsieur; I am supposed to be a little painter of no consequence,—a mere decorator. I'm on may way to a chateau where I mustn't rouse the slightest suspicion."
"Ah! I see," said the count, "some intrigue,—a love affair! Youth is happy!"
Oscar, who was writhing in his skin at being a nobody and having nothing to say, gazed at Colonel Czerni-Georges and at the famous painter Schinner, and wondered how he could transform himself into somebody. But a youth of nineteen, kept at home all his life, and going for two weeks only into the country, what could he be, or do, or say? However, the Alicante had got into his head, and his vanity was boiling in his veins; so when the famous Schinner allowed a romantic adventure to be guessed at in which the danger seemed as great as the pleasure, he fastened his eyes, sparkling with wrath and envy, upon that hero.
"Yes," said the count, with a credulous air, "a man must love a woman well to make such sacrifices."
"What sacrifices?" demanded Mistigris.
"Don't you know, my little friend, that a ceiling painted by so great a master as yours is worth its weight in gold?" replied the count. "If the civil list paid you, as it did, thirty thousand francs for each of those rooms in the Louvre," he continued, addressing Schinner, "a bourgeois,—as you call us in the studios—ought certainly to pay you twenty thousand. Whereas, if you go to this chateau as a humble decorator, you will not get two thousand."
"The money is not the greatest loss," said Mistigris. "The work is sure to be a masterpiece, but he can't sign it, you know, for fear of compromising her."
"Ah! I'd return all my crosses to the sovereigns who gave them to me for the devotion that youth can win," said the count.
"That's just it!" said Mistigris, "when one's young, one's loved; plenty of love, plenty of women; but they do say: 'Where there's wife, there's mope.'"
"What does Madame Schinner say to all this?" pursued the count; "for I believe you married, out of love, the beautiful Adelaide de Rouville, the protegee of old Admiral de Kergarouet; who, by the bye, obtained for you the order for the Louvre ceilings through his nephew, the Comte de Fontaine."
"A great painter is never married when he travels," said Mistigris.
"So that's the morality of studios, is it?" cried the count, with an air of great simplicity.
"Is the morality of courts where you got those decorations of yours any better?" said Schinner, recovering his self-possession, upset for the moment by finding out how much the count knew of Schinner's life as an artist.
"I never asked for any of my orders," said the count. "I believe I have loyally earned them."
"'A fair yield and no flavor,'" said Mistigris.
The count was resolved not to betray himself; he assumed an air of good-humored interest in the country, and looked up the valley of Groslay as the coucou took the road to Saint-Brice, leaving that to Chantilly on the right.
"Is Rome as fine as they say it is?" said Georges, addressing the great painter.
"Rome is fine only to those who love it; a man must have a passion for it to enjoy it. As a city, I prefer Venice,—though I just missed being murdered there."
"Faith, yes!" cried Mistigris; "if it hadn't been for me you'd have been gobbled up. It was that mischief-making tom-fool, Lord Byron, who got you into the scrape. Oh! wasn't he raging, that buffoon of an Englishman?"
"Hush!" said Schinner. "I don't want my affair with Lord Byron talked about."
"But you must own, all the same, that you were glad enough I knew how to box," said Mistigris.
From time to time, Pierrotin exchanged sly glances with the count, which might have made less inexperienced persons than the five other travellers uneasy.
"Lords, pachas, and thirty-thousand-franc ceilings!" he cried. "I seem to be driving sovereigns. What pourboires I'll get!"
"And all the places paid for!" said Mistigris, slyly.
"It is a lucky day for me," continued Pierrotin; "for you know, Pere Leger, about my beautiful new coach on which I have paid an advance of two thousand francs? Well, those dogs of carriage-builders, to whom I have to pay two thousand five hundred francs more, won't take fifteen hundred down, and my note for a thousand for two months! Those vultures want it all. Who ever heard of being so stiff with a man in business these eight years, and the father of a family?—making me run the risk of losing everything, carriage and money too, if I can't find before to-morrow night that miserable last thousand! Hue, Bichette! They won't play that trick on the great coach offices, I'll warrant you."
"Yes, that's it," said the rapin; "'your money or your strife.'"
"Well, you have only eight hundred now to get," remarked the count, who considered this moan, addressed to Pere Leger, a sort of letter of credit drawn upon himself.
"True," said Pierrotin. "Xi! xi! Rougeot!"
"You must have seen many fine ceilings in Venice," resumed the count, addressing Schinner.
"I was too much in love to take any notice of what seemed to me then mere trifles," replied Schinner. "But I was soon cured of that folly, for it was in the Venetian states—in Dalmatia—that I received a cruel lesson."
"Can it be told?" asked Georges. "I know Dalmatia very well."
"Well, if you have been there, you know that all the people at that end of the Adriatic are pirates, rovers, corsairs retired from business, as they haven't been hanged—"
"Uscoques," said Georges.
Hearing the right name given, the count, who had been sent by Napoleon on one occasion to the Illyrian provinces, turned his head and looked at Georges, so surprised was he.
"The affair happened in that town where they make maraschino," continued Schinner, seeming to search for a name.
"Zara," said Georges. "I've been there; it is on the coast."
"You are right," said the painter. "I had gone there to look at the country, for I adore scenery. I've longed a score of times to paint landscape, which no one, as I think, understands but Mistigris, who will some day reproduce Hobbema, Ruysdael, Claude Lorrain, Poussin, and others."
"But," exclaimed the count, "if he reproduces one of them won't that be enough?"
"If you persist in interrupting, monsieur," said Oscar, "we shall never get on."
"And Monsieur Schinner was not addressing himself to you in particular," added Georges.
"'Tisn't polite to interrupt," said Mistigris, sententiously, "but we all do it, and conversation would lose a great deal if we didn't scatter little condiments while exchanging our reflections. Therefore, continue, agreeable old gentleman, to lecture us, if you like. It is done in the best society, and you know the proverb: 'we must 'owl with the wolves.'"
"I had heard marvellous things of Dalmatia," resumed Schinner, "so I went there, leaving Mistigris in Venice at an inn—"
"'Locanda,'" interposed Mistigris; "keep to the local color."
"Zara is what is called a country town—"
"Yes," said Georges; "but it is fortified."
"Parbleu!" said Schinner; "the fortifications count for much in my adventure. At Zara there are a great many apothecaries. I lodged with one. In foreign countries everybody makes a principal business of letting lodgings; all other trades are accessory. In the evening, linen changed, I sat in my balcony. In the opposite balcony I saw a woman; oh! such a woman! Greek,—that tells all! The most beautiful creature in the town; almond eyes, lids that dropped like curtains, lashes like a paint-brush, a face with an oval to drive Raffaelle mad, a skin of the most delicious coloring, tints well-blended, velvety! and hands, oh!—"
"They weren't made of butter like those of the David school," put in Mistigris.
"You are always lugging in your painting," cried Georges.
"La, la!" retorted Mistigris; "'an ounce o' paint is worth a pound of swagger.'"
"And such a costume! pure Greek!" continued Schinner. "Conflagration of soul! you understand? Well, I questioned my Diafoirus; and he told me that my neighbor was named Zena. Changed my linen. The husband, an old villain, in order to marry Zena, paid three hundred thousand francs to her father and mother, so celebrated was the beauty of that beautiful creature, who was truly the most beautiful girl in all Dalmatia, Illyria, Adriatica, and other places. In those parts they buy their wives without seeing them—"
"I shall not go there," said Pere Leger.
"There are nights when my sleep is still illuminated by the eyes of Zena," continued Schinner. "The husband was sixty-nine years of age, and jealous! not as a tiger, for they say of a tiger, 'jealous as a Dalmatian'; and my man was worse than A Dalmatian, one Dalmatian,—he was three and a half Dalmatians at the very least; he was an Uscoque, tricoque, archicoque in a bicoque of a paltry little place like Zara—"
"Horrid fellow, and 'horrider bellow,'" put in Mistigris.
"Ha! good," said Georges, laughing.
"After being a corsair, and probably a pirate, he thought no more of spitting a Christian on his dagger than I did of spitting on the ground," continued Schinner. "So that was how the land lay. The old wretch had millions, and was hideous with the loss of an ear some pacha had cut off, and the want of an eye left I don't know where. 'Never,' said the little Diafoirus, 'never does he leave his wife, never for a second.' 'Perhaps she'll want your services, and I could go in your clothes; that's a trick that has great success in our theatres,' I told him. Well, it would take too long to tell you all the delicious moments of that lifetime—to wit, three days—which I passed exchanging looks with Zena, and changing linen every day. It was all the more violently titillating because the slightest motion was significant and dangerous. At last it must have dawned upon Zena's mind that none but a Frenchman and an artist was daring enough to make eyes at her in the midst of the perils by which she was surrounded; and as she hated her hideous pirate, she answered my glances with delightful ogles fit to raise a man to the summit of Paradise without pulleys. I attained to the height of Don Quixote; I rose to exaltation! and I cried: 'The monster may kill me, but I'll go, I'll go!' I gave up landscape and studied the ignoble dwelling of the Uscoque. That night, changed linen, and put on the most perfumed shirt I had; then I crossed the street, and entered—"
"The house?" cried Oscar.
"The house?" echoed Georges.
"The house," said Schinner.
"Well, you're a bold dog," cried farmer Leger. "I should have kept out of it myself."
"Especially as you could never have got through the doorway," replied Schinner. "So in I went," he resumed, "and I found two hands stretched out to meet mine. I said nothing, for those hands, soft as the peel of an onion, enjoined me to silence. A whisper breathed into my ear, 'He sleeps!' Then, as we were sure that nobody would see us, we went to walk, Zena and I, upon the ramparts, but accompanied, if you please, by a duenna, as hideous as an old portress, who didn't leave us any more than our shadow; and I couldn't persuade Madame Pirate to send her away. The next night we did the same thing, and again I wanted to get rid of the old woman, but Zena resisted. As my sweet love spoke only Greek, and I Venetian, we couldn't understand each other, and so we quarrelled. I said to myself, in changing linen, 'As sure as fate, the next time there'll be no old woman, and we can make it all up with the language of love.' Instead of which, fate willed that that old woman should save my life! You'll hear how. The weather was fine, and, not to create suspicion, I took a turn at landscape,—this was after our quarrel was made up, you understand. After walking along the ramparts for some time, I was coming tranquilly home with my hands in my pockets, when I saw the street crowded with people. Such a crowd! like that for an execution. It fell upon me; I was seized, garroted, gagged, and guarded by the police. Ah! you don't know—and I hope you never may know—what it is to be taken for a murderer by a maddened populace which stones you and howls after you from end to end of the principal street of a town, shouting for your death! Ah! those eyes were so many flames, all mouths were a single curse, while from the volume of that burning hatred rose the fearful cry: 'To death! to death! down with the murderer!'"
"So those Dalmatians spoke our language, did they?" said the count. "I observe you relate the scene as if it happened yesterday."
Schinner was nonplussed.
"Riot has but one language," said the astute statesman Mistigris.
"Well," continued Schinner, "when I was brought into court in presence of the magistrates, I learned that the cursed corsair was dead, poisoned by Zena. I'd liked to have changed linen then. Give you my word, I knew nothing of that melodrama. It seems the Greek girl put opium (a great many poppies, as monsieur told us, grow about there) in the pirate's grog, just to make him sleep soundly and leave her free for a little walk with me, and the old duenna, unfortunate creature, made a mistake and trebled the dose. The immense fortune of that cursed pirate was really the cause of all my Zena's troubles. But she explained matters so ingenuously that I, for one, was released with an injunction from the mayor and the Austrian commissary of police to go back to Rome. Zena, who let the heirs of the Uscoque and the judges get most of the old villain's wealth, was let off with two years' seclusion in a convent, where she still is. I am going back there some day to paint her portrait; for in a few years, you know, all this will be forgotten. Such are the follies one commits at eighteen!"
"And you left me without a sou in the locanda at Venice," said Mistigris. "And I had to get from Venice to Rome by painting portraits for five francs apiece, which they didn't pay me. However, that was my halcyon time. I don't regret it."
"You can imagine the reflections that came to me in that Dalmatian prison, thrown there without protection, having to answer to Austrians and Dalmatians, and in danger of losing my head because I went twice to walk with a woman. There's ill-luck, with a vengeance!"
"Did all that really happen to you?" said Oscar, naively.
"Why shouldn't it happen to him, inasmuch as it had already happened during the French occupation of Illyria to one of our most gallant officers of artillery?" said the count, slyly.
"And you believed that artillery officer?" said Mistigris, as slyly to the count.
"Is that all?" asked Oscar.
"Of course he can't tell you that they cut his head off,—how could he?" said Mistigris. "'Dead schinners tell no tales.'"
"Monsieur, are there farms in that country?" asked Pere Leger. "What do they cultivate?"
"Maraschino," replied Mistigris,—"a plant that grows to the height of the lips, and produces a liqueur which goes by that name."
"Ah!" said Pere Leger.
"I only stayed three days in the town and fifteen in prison," said Schinner, "so I saw nothing; not even the fields where they grow the maraschino."
"They are fooling you," said Georges to the farmer. "Maraschino comes in cases."
"'Romances alter cases,'" remarked Mistigris.
CHAPTER V. THE DRAMA BEGINS
Pierrotin's vehicle was now going down the steep incline of the valley of Saint-Brice to the inn which stands in the middle of the large village of that name, where Pierrotin was in the habit of stopping an hour to breathe his horses, give them their oats, and water them. It was now about half-past one o'clock.
"Ha! here's Pere Leger," cried the inn-keeper, when the coach pulled up before the door. "Do you breakfast?"
"Always once a day," said the fat farmer; "and I'll break a crust here and now."
"Give us a good breakfast," cried Georges, twirling his cane in a cavalier manner which excited the admiration of poor Oscar.
But that admiration was turned to jealousy when he saw the gay adventurer pull out from a side-pocket a small straw case, from which he selected a light-colored cigar, which he proceeded to smoke on the threshold of the inn door while waiting for breakfast.
"Do you smoke?" he asked of Oscar.
"Sometimes," replied the ex-schoolboy, swelling out his little chest and assuming a jaunty air.
Georges presented the open case to Oscar and Schinner.
"Phew!" said the great painter; "ten-sous cigars!"
"The remains of those I brought back from Spain," said the adventurer. "Do you breakfast here?"
"No," said the artist. "I am expected at the chateau. Besides, I took something at the Lion d'Argent just before starting."
"And you?" said Georges to Oscar.
"I have breakfasted," replied Oscar.
Oscar would have given ten years of his life for boots and straps to his trousers. He sneezed, he coughed, he spat, and swallowed the smoke with ill-disguised grimaces.
"You don't know how to smoke," said Schinner; "look at me!"
With a motionless face Schinner breathed in the smoke of his cigar and let it out through his nose without the slightest contraction of feature. Then he took another whiff, kept the smoke in his throat, removed the cigar from his lips, and allowed the smoke slowly and gracefully to escape them.
"There, young man," said the great painter.
"Here, young man, here's another way; watch this," said Georges, imitating Schinner, but swallowing the smoke and exhaling none.
"And my parents believed they had educated me!" thought Oscar, endeavoring to smoke with better grace.
But his nausea was so strong that he was thankful when Mistigris filched his cigar, remarking, as he smoked it with evident satisfaction, "You haven't any contagious diseases, I hope."
Oscar in reply would fain have punched his head.
"How he does spend money!" he said, looking at Colonel Georges. "Eight francs for Alicante and the cheese-cakes; forty sous for cigars; and his breakfast will cost him—"
"Ten francs at least," replied Mistigris; "but that's how things are. 'Sharp stomachs make short purses.'"
"Come, Pere Leger, let us drink a bottle of Bordeaux together," said Georges to the farmer.
"Twenty francs for his breakfast!" cried Oscar; "in all, more than thirty-odd francs since we started!"
Killed by a sense of his inferiority, Oscar sat down on a stone post, lost in a revery which did not allow him to perceive that his trousers, drawn up by the effect of his position, showed the point of junction between the old top of his stocking and the new "footing,"—his mother's handiwork.
"We are brothers in socks," said Mistigris, pulling up his own trousers sufficiently to show an effect of the same kind,—"'By the footing, Hercules.'"
The count, who overheard this, laughed as he stood with folded arms under the porte-cochere, a little behind the other travellers. However nonsensical these lads might be, the grave statesman envied their very follies; he liked their bragging and enjoyed the fun of their lively chatter.
"Well, are you to have Les Moulineaux? for I know you went to Paris to get the money for the purchase," said the inn-keeper to Pere Leger, whom he had just taken to the stables to see a horse he wanted to sell to him. "It will be queer if you manage to fleece a peer of France and a minister of State like the Comte de Serizy."
The person thus alluded to showed no sign upon his face as he turned to look at the farmer.
"I've done for him," replied Pere Leger, in a low voice.
"Good! I like to see those nobles fooled. If you should want twenty thousand francs or so, I'll lend them to you—But Francois, the conductor of Touchard's six o'clock coach, told me that Monsieur Margueron was invited by the Comte de Serizy to dine with him to-day at Presles."
"That was the plan of his Excellency, but we had our own little ways of thwarting it," said the farmer, laughing.
"The count could appoint Monsieur Margueron's son, and you haven't any place to give,—remember that," said the inn-keeper.
"Of course I do; but if the count has the ministry on his side, I have King Louis XVIII.," said Pere Leger, in a low voice. "Forty thousand of his pictures on coin of the realm given to Moreau will enable me to buy Les Moulineaux for two hundred and sixty thousand, money down, before Monsieur de Serizy can do so. When he finds the sale is made, he'll be glad enough to buy the farm for three hundred and sixty thousand, instead of letting me cut it up in small lots right in the heart of his property."
"Well done, bourgeois!" cried the inn-keeper.
"Don't you think that's good play?" said Leger.
"Besides," said the inn-keeper, "the farm is really worth that to him."
"Yes; Les Moulineaux brings in to-day six thousand francs in rental. I'll take another lease of it at seven thousand five hundred for eighteen years. Therefore it is really an investment at more than two and a half per cent. The count can't complain of that. In order not to involve Moreau, he is himself to propose me as tenant and farmer; it gives him a look of acting for his master's interests by finding him nearly three per cent for his money, and a tenant who will pay well."
"How much will Moreau make, in all?"
"Well, if the count gives him ten thousand francs for the transaction the matter will bring him fifty thousand,—and well-earned, too."
"After all, the count, so they tell me, doesn't like Presles. And then he is so rich, what does it matter what it costs him?" said the inn-keeper. "I have never seen him, myself."
"Nor I," said Pere Leger. "But he must be intending to live there, or why should he spend two hundred thousand francs in restoring the chateau? It is as fine now as the King's own palace."
"Well, well," said the inn-keeper, "it was high time for Moreau to feather his nest."
"Yes, for if the masters come there," replied Leger, "they won't keep their eyes in their pockets."
The count lost not a word of this conversation, which was held in a low voice, but not in a whisper.
"Here I have actually found the proofs I was going down there to seek," he thought, looking at the fat farmer as he entered the kitchen. "But perhaps," he added, "it is only a scheme; Moreau may not have listened to it."
So unwilling was he to believe that his steward could lend himself to such a conspiracy.
Pierrotin here came out to water his horses. The count, thinking that the driver would probably breakfast with the farmer and the inn-keeper, feared some thoughtless indiscretion.
"All these people combine against us," he thought; "it is allowable to baffle them—Pierrotin," he said in a low voice as the man passed him, "I promised you ten louis to keep my secret; but if you continue to conceal my name (and remember, I shall know if you pronounce it, or make the slightest sign that reveals it to any one, no matter who, here or at Isle-Adam, before to-night), I will give you to-morrow morning, on your return trip, the thousand francs you need to pay for your new coach. Therefore, by way of precaution," added the count, striking Pierrotin, who was pale with happiness, on the shoulder, "don't go in there to breakfast; stay with your horses."
"Monsieur le comte, I understand you; don't be afraid! it relates to Pere Leger, of course."
"It relates to every one," replied the count.
"Make yourself easy.—Come, hurry," said Pierrotin, a few moments later, putting his head into the kitchen. "We are late. Pere Leger, you know there's a hill to climb; I'm not hungry, and I'll drive on slowly; you can soon overtake me,—it will do you good to walk a bit."
"What a hurry you are in, Pierrotin!" said the inn-keeper. "Can't you stay and breakfast? The colonel here pays for the wine at fifty sous, and has ordered a bottle of champagne."
"I can't. I've got a fish I must deliver by three o'clock for a great dinner at Stors; there's no fooling with customers, or fishes, either."
"Very good," said Pere Leger to the inn-keeper. "You can harness that horse you want to sell me into the cabriolet; we'll breakfast in peace and overtake Pierrotin, and I can judge of the beast as we go along. We can go three in your jolter."
To the count's surprise, Pierrotin himself rebridled the horses. Schinner and Mistigris had walked on. Scarcely had Pierrotin overtaken the two artists and was mounting the hill from which Ecouen, the steeple of Mesnil, and the forests that surround that most beautiful region, came in sight, when the gallop of a horse and the jingling of a vehicle announced the coming of Pere Leger and the grandson of Czerni-Georges, who were soon restored to their places in the coucou.
As Pierrotin drove down the narrow road to Moisselles, Georges, who had so far not ceased to talk with the farmer of the beauty of the hostess at Saint-Brice, suddenly exclaimed: "Upon my word, this landscape is not so bad, great painter, is it?"
"Pooh! you who have seen the East and Spain can't really admire it."
"I've two cigars left! If no one objects, will you help me finish them, Schinner? the little young man there seems to have found a whiff or two enough for him."
Pere Leger and the count kept silence, which passed for consent.
Oscar, furious at being called a "little young man," remarked, as the other two were lighting their cigars:
"I am not the aide-de-camp of Mina, monsieur, and I have not yet been to the East, but I shall probably go there. The career to which my family destine me will spare me, I trust, the annoyances of travelling in a coucou before I reach your present age. When I once become a personage I shall know how to maintain my station."
"'Et caetera punctum!'" crowed Mistigris, imitating the hoarse voice of a young cock; which made Oscar's deliverance all the more absurd, because he had just reached the age when the beard sprouts and the voice breaks. "'What a chit for chat!'" added the rapin.
"Your family, young man, destine you to some career, do they?" said Georges. "Might I ask what it is?"
"Diplomacy," replied Oscar.
Three bursts of laughter came from Mistigris, the great painter, and the farmer. The count himself could not help smiling. Georges was perfectly grave.
"By Allah!" he exclaimed, "I see nothing to laugh at in that. Though it seems to me, young man, that your respectable mother is, at the present moment, not exactly in the social sphere of an ambassadress. She carried a handbag worthy of the utmost respect, and wore shoe-strings which—"
"My mother, monsieur!" exclaimed Oscar, in a tone of indignation. "That was the person in charge of our household."
"'Our household' is a very aristocratic term," remarked the count.
"Kings have households," replied Oscar, proudly.
A look from Georges repressed the desire to laugh which took possession of everybody; he contrived to make Mistigris and the painter understand that it was necessary to manage Oscar cleverly in order to work this new mine of amusement.
"Monsieur is right," said the great Schinner to the count, motioning towards Oscar. "Well-bred people always talk of their 'households'; it is only common persons like ourselves who say 'home.' For a man so covered with decorations—"
"'Nunc my eye, nunc alii,'" whispered Mistigris.
"—you seem to know little of the language of the courts. I ask your future protection, Excellency," added Schinner, turning to Oscar.
"I congratulate myself on having travelled with three such distinguished men," said the count,—"a painter already famous, a future general, and a young diplomatist who may some day recover Belgium for France."
Having committed the odious crime of repudiating his mother, Oscar, furious from a sense that his companions were laughing at him, now resolved, at any cost, to make them pay attention to him.
"'All is not gold that glitters,'" he began, his eyes flaming.
"That's not it," said Mistigris. "'All is not old that titters.' You'll never get on in diplomacy if you don't know your proverbs better than that."
"I may not know proverbs, but I know my way—"
"It must be far," said Georges, "for I saw that person in charge of your household give you provisions enough for an ocean voyage: rolls, chocolate—"
"A special kind of bread and chocolate, yes, monsieur," returned Oscar; "my stomach is much too delicate to digest the victuals of a tavern."
"'Victuals' is a word as delicate and refined as your stomach," said Georges.
"Ah! I like that word 'victuals,'" cried the great painter.
"The word is all the fashion in the best society," said Mistigris. "I use it myself at the cafe of the Black Hen."
"Your tutor is, doubtless, some celebrated professor, isn't he?—Monsieur Andrieux of the Academie Francaise, or Monsieur Royer-Collard?" asked Schinner.
"My tutor is or was the Abbe Loraux, now vicar of Saint-Sulpice," replied Oscar, recollecting the name of the confessor at his school.
"Well, you were right to take a private tutor," said Mistigris. "'Tuto, tutor, celeritus, and jocund.' Of course, you will reward him well, your abbe?"
"Undoubtedly he will be made a bishop some day," said Oscar.
"By your family influence?" inquired Georges gravely.
"We shall probably contribute to his rise, for the Abbe Frayssinous is constantly at our house."
"Ah! you know the Abbe Frayssinous?" asked the count.
"He is under obligations to my father," answered Oscar.
"Are you on your way to your estate?" asked Georges.
"No, monsieur; but I am able to say where I am going, if others are not. I am going to the Chateau de Presles, to the Comte de Serizy."
"The devil! are you going to Presles?" cried Schinner, turning as red as a cherry.
"So you know his Excellency the Comte de Serizy?" said Georges.
Pere Leger turned round to look at Oscar with a stupefied air.
"Is Monsieur de Serizy at Presles?" he said.
"Apparently, as I am going there," replied Oscar.
"Do you often see the count," asked Monsieur de Serizy.
"Often," replied Oscar. "I am a comrade of his son, who is about my age, nineteen; we ride together on horseback nearly every day."
"'Aut Caesar, aut Serizy,'" said Mistigris, sententiously.
Pierrotin and Pere Leger exchanged winks on hearing this statement.
"Really," said the count to Oscar, "I am delighted to meet with a young man who can tell me about that personage. I want his influence on a rather serious matter, although it would cost him nothing to oblige me. It concerns a claim I wish to press on the American government. I should be glad to obtain information about Monsieur de Serizy."
"Oh! if you want to succeed," replied Oscar, with a knowing look, "don't go to him, but go to his wife; he is madly in love with her; no one knows more than I do about that; but she can't endure him."
"Why not?" said Georges.
"The count has a skin disease which makes him hideous. Doctor Albert has tried in vain to cure it. The count would give half his fortune if he had a chest like mine," said Oscar, swelling himself out. "He lives a lonely life in his own house; gets up very early in the morning and works from three to eight o'clock; after eight he takes his remedies,—sulphur-baths, steam-baths, and such things. His valet bakes him in a sort of iron box—for he is always in hopes of getting cured."
"If he is such a friend of the King as they say he is, why doesn't he get his Majesty to touch him?" asked Georges.
"The count has lately promised thirty thousand francs to a celebrated Scotch doctor who is coming over to treat him," continued Oscar.
"Then his wife can't be blamed if she finds better—" said Schinner, but he did not finish his sentence.
"I should say so!" resumed Oscar. "The poor man is so shrivelled and old you would take him for eighty! He's as dry as parchment, and, unluckily for him, he feels his position."
"Most men would," said Pere Leger.
"He adores his wife and dares not find fault with her," pursued Oscar, rejoicing to have found a topic to which they listened. "He plays scenes with her which would make you die of laughing,—exactly like Arnolphe in Moliere's comedy."
The count, horror-stricken, looked at Pierrotin, who, finding that the count said nothing, concluded that Madame Clapart's son was telling falsehoods.
"So, monsieur," continued Oscar, "if you want the count's influence, I advise you to apply to the Marquis d'Aiglemont. If you get that former adorer of Madame de Serizy on your side, you will win husband and wife at one stroke."
"Look here!" said the painter, "you seem to have seen the count without his clothes; are you his valet?"
"His valet!" cried Oscar.
"Hang it! people don't tell such things about their friends in public conveyances," exclaimed Mistigris. "As for me, I'm not listening to you; I'm deaf: 'discretion plays the better part of adder.'"
"'A poet is nasty and not fit,' and so is a tale-bearer," cried Schinner.
"Great painter," said Georges, sententiously, "learn this: you can't say harm of people you don't know. Now the little one here has proved, indubitably, that he knows his Serizy by heart. If he had told us about the countess, perhaps—?"
"Stop! not a word about the Comtesse de Serizy, young men," cried the count. "I am a friend of her brother, the Marquis de Ronquerolles, and whoever attempts to speak disparagingly of the countess must answer to me."
"Monsieur is right," cried the painter; "no man should blaguer women."
"God, Honor, and the Ladies! I believe in that melodrama," said Mistigris.
"I don't know the guerrilla chieftain, Mina, but I know the Keeper of the Seals," continued the count, looking at Georges; "and though I don't wear my decorations," he added, looking at the painter, "I prevent those who do not deserve them from obtaining any. And finally, let me say that I know so many persons that I even know Monsieur Grindot, the architect of Presles. Pierrotin, stop at the next inn; I want to get out a moment."
Pierrotin hurried his horses through the village street of Moisselles, at the end of which was the inn where all travellers stopped. This short distance was done in silence.
"Where is that young fool going?" asked the count, drawing Pierrotin into the inn-yard.
"To your steward. He is the son of a poor lady who lives in the rue de la Cerisaie, to whom I often carry fruit, and game, and poultry from Presles. She is a Madame Husson."
"Who is that man?" inquired Pere Leger of Pierrotin when the count had left him.
"Faith, I don't know," replied Pierrotin; "this is the first time I have driven him. I shouldn't be surprised if he was that prince who owns Maffliers. He has just told me to leave him on the road near there; he doesn't want to go on to Isle-Adam."
"Pierrotin thinks he is the master of Maffliers," said Pere Leger, addressing Georges when he got back into the coach.
The three young fellows were now as dull as thieves caught in the act; they dared not look at each other, and were evidently considering the consequences of their fibs.
"This is what is called 'suffering for license sake,'" said Mistigris.
"You see I did know the count," said Oscar.
"Possibly. But you'll never be an ambassador," replied Georges. "When people want to talk in public conveyances, they ought to be careful, like me, to talk without saying anything."
"That's what speech is for," remarked Mistigris, by way of conclusion.
The count returned to his seat and the coucou rolled on amid the deepest silence.
"Well, my friends," said the count, when they reached the Carreau woods, "here we all are, as silent as if we were going to the scaffold."
"'Silence gives content,'" muttered Mistigris.
"The weather is fine," said Georges.
"What place is that?" said Oscar, pointing to the chateau de Franconville, which produces a fine effect at that particular spot, backed, as it is, by the noble forest of Saint-Martin.
"How is it," cried the count, "that you, who say you go so often to Presles, do not know Franconville?"
"Monsieur knows men, not castles," said Mistigris.
"Budding diplomatists have so much else to take their minds," remarked Georges.
"Be so good as to remember my name," replied Oscar, furious. "I am Oscar Husson, and ten years hence I shall be famous."
After that speech, uttered with bombastic assumption, Oscar flung himself back in his corner.
"Husson of what, of where?" asked Mistigris.
"It is a great family," replied the count. "Husson de la Cerisaie; monsieur was born beneath the steps of the Imperial throne."
Oscar colored crimson to the roots of his hair, and was penetrated through and through with a dreadful foreboding.
They were now about to descend the steep hill of La Cave, at the foot of which, in a narrow valley, flanked by the forest of Saint-Martin, stands the magnificent chateau of Presles.
"Messieurs," said the count, "I wish you every good fortune in your various careers. Monsieur le colonel, make your peace with the King of France; the Czerni-Georges ought not to snub the Bourbons. I have nothing to wish for you, my dear Monsieur Schinner; your fame is already won, and nobly won by splendid work. But you are much to be feared in domestic life, and I, being a married man, dare not invite you to my house. As for Monsieur Husson, he needs no protection; he possesses the secrets of statesmen and can make them tremble. Monsieur Leger is about to pluck the Comte de Serizy, and I can only exhort him to do it with a firm hand. Pierrotin, put me out here, and pick me up at the same place to-morrow," added the count, who then left the coach and took a path through the woods, leaving his late companions confused and bewildered.
"He must be that count who has hired Franconville; that's the path to it," said Leger.
"If ever again," said the false Schinner, "I am caught blague-ing in a public coach, I'll fight a duel with myself. It was your fault, Mistigris," giving his rapin a tap on the head.
"All I did was to help you out, and follow you to Venice," said Mistigris; "but that's always the way, 'Fortune belabors the slave.'"
"Let me tell you," said Georges to his neighbor Oscar, "that if, by chance, that was the Comte de Serizy, I wouldn't be in your skin for a good deal, healthy as you think it."
Oscar, remembering his mother's injunctions, which these words recalled to his mind, turned pale and came to his senses.
"Here you are, messieurs!" cried Pierrotin, pulling up at a fine iron gate.
"Here we are—where?" said the painter, and Georges, and Oscar all at once.
"Well, well!" exclaimed Pierrotin, "if that doesn't beat all! Ah ca, monsieurs, have none of you been here before? Why, this is the chateau de Presles."
"Oh, yes; all right, friend," said Georges, recovering his audacity. "But I happen to be going on to Les Moulineaux," he added, not wishing his companions to know that he was really going to the chateau.
"You don't say so? Then you are coming to me," said Pere Leger.
"Why, I'm the farmer at Moulineaux. Hey, colonel, what brings you there?"
"To taste your butter," said Georges, pulling out his portfolio.
"Pierrotin," said Oscar, "leave my things at the steward's. I am going straight to the chateau."
Whereupon Oscar plunged into a narrow path, not knowing, in the least, where he was going.
"Hi! Monsieur l'ambassadeur," cried Pere Leger, "that's the way to the forest; if you really want to get to the chateau, go through the little gate."
Thus compelled to enter, Oscar disappeared into the grand court-yard. While Pere Leger stood watching Oscar, Georges, utterly confounded by the discovery that the farmer was the present occupant of Les Moulineaux, has slipped away so adroitly that when the fat countryman looked round for his colonel there was no sign of him.
The iron gates opened at Pierrotin's demand, and he proudly drove in to deposit with the concierge the thousand and one utensils belonging to the great Schinner. Oscar was thunderstruck when he became aware that Mistigris and his master, the witnesses of his bravado, were to be installed in the chateau itself. In ten minutes Pierrotin had discharged the various packages of the painter, the bundles of Oscar Husson, and the pretty little leather portmanteau, which he took from its nest of hay and confided mysteriously to the wife of the concierge. Then he drove out of the courtyard, cracking his whip, and took the road that led through the forest to Isle-Adam, his face beaming with the sly expression of a peasant who calculates his profits. Nothing was lacking now to his happiness; on the morrow he would have his thousand francs, and, as a consequence, his magnificent new coach.
CHAPTER VI. THE MOREAU INTERIOR
Oscar, somewhat abashed, was skulking behind a clump of trees in the centre of the court-yard, and watching to see what became of his two road-companions, when Monsieur Moreau suddenly came out upon the portico from what was called the guard-room. He was dressed in a long blue overcoat which came to his heels, breeches of yellowish leather and top-boots, and in his hand he carried a riding-whip.
"Ah! my boy, so here you are? How is the dear mamma?" he said, taking Oscar by the hand. "Good-day, messieurs," he added to Mistigris and his master, who then came forward. "You are, no doubt, the two painters whom Monsieur Grindot, the architect, told me to expect."
He whistled twice at the end of his whip; the concierge came.
"Take these gentlemen to rooms 14 and 15. Madame Moreau will give you the keys. Go with them to show the way; make fires there, if necessary, and take up all their things. I have orders from Monsieur le comte," he added, addressing the two young men, "to invite you to my table, messieurs; we dine at five, as in Paris. If you like hunting, you will find plenty to amuse you; I have a license from the Eaux et Forets; and we hunt over twelve thousand acres of forest, not counting our own domain."
Oscar, the painter, and Mistigris, all more or less subdued, exchanged glances, but Mistigris, faithful to himself, remarked in a low tone, "'Veni, vidi, cecidi,—I came, I saw, I slaughtered.'"
Oscar followed the steward, who led him along at a rapid pace through the park.
"Jacques," said Moreau to one of his children whom they met, "run in and tell your mother that little Husson has come, and say to her that I am obliged to go to Les Moulineaux for a moment."
The steward, then about fifty years old, was a dark man of medium height, and seemed stern. His bilious complexion, to which country habits had added a certain violent coloring, conveyed, at first sight, the impression of a nature which was other than his own. His blue eyes and a large crow-beaked nose gave him an air that was the more threatening because his eyes were placed too close together. But his large lips, the outline of his face, and the easy good-humor of his manner soon showed that his nature was a kindly one. Abrupt in speech and decided in tone, he impressed Oscar immensely by the force of his penetration, inspired, no doubt, by the affection which he felt for the boy. Trained by his mother to magnify the steward, Oscar had always felt himself very small in Moreau's presence; but on reaching Presles a new sensation came over him, as if he expected some harm from this fatherly figure, his only protector.
"Well, my Oscar, you don't look pleased at getting here," said the steward. "And yet you'll find plenty of amusement; you shall learn to ride on horseback, and shoot, and hunt."
"I don't know any of those things," said Oscar, stupidly.
"But I brought you here to learn them."
"Mamma told me only to stay two weeks because of Madame Moreau."
"Oh! we'll see about that," replied Moreau, rather wounded that his conjugal authority was doubted.
Moreau's youngest son, an active, strapping lad of twelve, here ran up.
"Come," said his father, "take Oscar to your mother."
He himself went rapidly along the shortest path to the gamekeeper's house, which was situated between the park and the forest.
The pavilion, or lodge, in which the count had established his steward, was built a few years before the Revolution. It stood in the centre of a large garden, one wall of which adjoined the court-yard of the stables and offices of the chateau itself. Formerly its chief entrance was on the main road to the village. But after the count's father bought the building, he closed that entrance and united the place with his own property.
The house, built of freestone, in the style of the period of Louis XV. (it is enough to say that its exterior decoration consisted of a stone drapery beneath the windows, as in the colonnades of the Place Louis XV., the flutings of which were stiff and ungainly), had on the ground-floor a fine salon opening into a bedroom, and a dining-room connected with a billiard-room. These rooms, lying parallel to one another, were separated by a staircase, in front of which was a sort of peristyle which formed an entrance-hall, on which the two suits of rooms on either side opened. The kitchen was beneath the dining-room, for the whole building was raised ten steps from the ground level.
By placing her own bedroom on the first floor above the ground-floor, Madame Moreau was able to transform the chamber adjoining the salon into a boudoir. These two rooms were richly furnished with beautiful pieces culled from the rare old furniture of the chateau. The salon, hung with blue and white damask, formerly the curtains of the state-bed, was draped with ample portieres and window curtains lined with white silk. Pictures, evidently from old panels, plant-stands, various pretty articles of modern upholstery, handsome lamps, and a rare old cut-glass chandelier, gave a grandiose appearance to the room. The carpet was a Persian rug. The boudoir, wholly modern, and furnished entirely after Madame Moreau's own taste, was arranged in imitation of a tent, with ropes of blue silk on a gray background. The classic divan was there, of course, with its pillows and footstools. The plant-stands, taken care of by the head-gardener of Presles, rejoiced the eye with their pyramids of bloom. The dining-room and billiard-room were furnished in mahogany.
Around the house the steward's wife had laid out a beautiful garden, carefully cultivated, which opened into the great park. Groups of choice parks hid the offices and stables. To improve the entrance by which visitors came to see her, she had substituted a handsome iron gateway for the shabby railing, which she discarded.
The dependence in which the situation of their dwelling placed the Moreaus, was thus adroitly concealed, and they seemed all the more like rich and independent persons taking care of the property of a friend, because neither the count nor the countess ever came to Presles to take down their pretensions. Moreover, the perquisites granted by Monsieur de Serizy allowed them to live in the midst of that abundance which is the luxury of country life. Milk, eggs, poultry, game, fruits, flowers, forage, vegetables, wood, the steward and his wife used in profusion, buying absolutely nothing but butcher's-meat, wines, and the colonial supplies required by their life of luxury. The poultry-maid baked their bread; and of late years Moreau had paid his butcher with pigs from the farm, after reserving those he needed for his own use.
On one occasion, the countess, always kind and good to her former maid, gave her, as a souvenir perhaps, a little travelling-carriage, the fashion of which was out of date. Moreau had it repainted, and now drove his wife about the country with two good horses which belonged to the farm. Besides these horses, Moreau had his own saddle-horse. He did enough farming on the count's property to keep the horses and maintain his servants. He stacked three hundred tons of excellent hay, but accounted for only one hundred, making use of a vague permission once granted by the count. He kept his poultry-yard, pigeon-cotes, and cattle at the cost of the estate, but the manure of the stables was used by the count's gardeners. All these little stealings had some ostensible excuse.
Madame Moreau had taken into her service a daughter of one of the gardeners, who was first her maid and afterwards her cook. The poultry-game, also the dairy-maid, assisted in the work of the household; and the steward had hired a discharged soldier to groom the horses and do the heavy labor.
At Nerville, Chaumont, Maffliers, Nointel, and other places of the neighborhood, the handsome wife of the steward was received by persons who either did not know, or pretended not to know her previous condition. Moreau did services to many persons. He induced his master to agree to certain things which seem trifles in Paris, but are really of immense importance in the country. After bringing about the appointment of a certain "juge de paix" at Beaumont and also at Isle-Adam, he had, in the same year, prevented the dismissal of a keeper-general of the Forests, and obtained the cross of the Legion of honor for the first cavalry-sergeant at Beaumont. Consequently, no festivity was ever given among the bourgeoisie to which Monsieur and Madame Moreau were not invited. The rector of Presles and the mayor of Presles came every evening to play cards with them. It is difficult for a man not to be kind and hospitable after feathering his nest so comfortably.
A pretty woman, and an affected one, as all retired waiting-maids of great ladies are, for after they are married they imitate their mistresses, Madame Moreau imported from Paris all the new fashions. She wore expensive boots, and never was seen on foot, except, occasionally, in the finest weather. Though her husband allowed but five hundred francs a year for her toilet, that sum is immense in the provinces, especially if well laid out. So that Madame Moreau, fair, rosy, and fresh, about thirty-six years of age, still slender and delicate in shape in spite of her three children, played the young girl and gave herself the airs of a princess. If, when she drove by in her caleche, some stranger had asked, "Who is she?" Madame Moreau would have been furious had she heard the reply: "The wife of the steward at Presles." She wished to be taken for the mistress of the chateau. In the villages, she patronized the people in the tone of a great lady. The influence of her husband over the count, proved in so many years, prevented the small bourgeoisie from laughing at Madame Moreau, who, in the eyes of the peasants, was really a personage.
Estelle (her name was Estelle) took no more part in the affairs of the stewardship then the wife of a broker does in her husband's affairs at the Bourse. She even depended on Moreau for the care of the household and their own fortune. Confident of his means, she was a thousand leagues from dreaming that this comfortable existence, which had lasted for seventeen years, could ever be endangered. And yet, when she heard of the count's determination to restore the magnificent chateau, she felt that her enjoyments were threatened, and she urged her husband to come to the arrangement with Leger about Les Moulineaux, so that they might retire from Presles and live at Isle-Adam. She had no intention of returning to a position that was more or less that of a servant in presence of her former mistress, who, indeed, would have laughed to see her established in the lodge with all the airs and graces of a woman of the world.
The rancorous enmity which existed between the Reyberts and the Moreaus came from a wound inflicted by Madame de Reybert upon Madame Moreau on the first occasion when the latter assumed precedence over the former on her first arrival at Presles, the wife of the steward being determined not to allow her supremacy to be undermined by a woman nee de Corroy. Madame de Reybert thereupon reminded, or, perhaps, informed the whole country-side of Madame Moreau's former station. The words "waiting-maid" flew from lip to lip. The envious acquaintances of the Moreaus throughout the neighborhood from Beaumont to Moisselles, began to carp and criticize with such eagerness that a few sparks of the conflagration fell into the Moreau household. For four years the Reyberts, cut dead by the handsome Estelle, found themselves the objects of so much animadversion on the part of the adherents of the Moreaus that their position at Presles would not have been endurable without the thought of vengeance which had, so far, supported them.
The Moreaus, who were very friendly with Grindot the architect, had received notice from him of the early arrival of the two painters sent down to finish the decorations of the chateau, the principal paintings for which were just completed by Schinner. The great painter had recommended for this work the artist who was accompanied by Mistigris. For two days past Madame Moreau had been on the tiptoe of expectation, and had put herself under arms to receive him. An artist, who was to be her guest and companion for weeks, demanded some effort. Schinner and his wife had their own apartment at the chateau, where, by the count's express orders, they were treated with all the consideration due to himself. Grindot, who stayed at the steward's house, showed such respect for the great artist that neither the steward nor his wife had attempted to put themselves on familiar terms with him. Moreover, the noblest and richest people in the surrounding country had vied with each other in paying attention to Schinner and his wife. So, very well pleased to have, as it were, a little revenge of her own, Madame Moreau was determined to cry up the artist she was now expecting, and to present him to her social circle as equal in talent to the great Schinner.
Though for two days past Moreau's pretty wife had arrayed herself coquettishly, the prettiest of her toilets had been reserved for this very Saturday, when, as she felt no doubt, the artist would arrive for dinner. A pink gown in very narrow stripes, a pink belt with a richly chased gold buckle, a velvet ribbon and cross at her throat, and velvet bracelets on her bare arms (Madame de Serizy had handsome arms and showed them much), together with bronze kid shoes and thread stockings, gave Madame Moreau all the appearance of an elegant Parisian. She wore, also, a superb bonnet of Leghorn straw, trimmed with a bunch of moss roses from Nattier's, beneath the spreading sides of which rippled the curls of her beautiful blond hair.
After ordering a very choice dinner and reviewing the condition of her rooms, she walked about the grounds, so as to be seen standing near a flower-bed in the court-yard of the chateau, like the mistress of the house, on the arrival of the coach from Paris. She held above her head a charming rose-colored parasol lined with white silk and fringed. Seeing that Pierrotin merely left Mistigris's queer packages with the concierge, having, apparently, brought no passengers, Estelle retired disappointed and regretting the trouble of making her useless toilet. Like many persons who are dressed in their best, she felt incapable of any other occupation than that of sitting idly in her salon awaiting the coach from Beaumont, which usually passed about an hour after that of Pierrotin, though it did not leave Paris till mid-day. She was, therefore, in her own apartment when the two artists walked up to the chateau, and were sent by Moreau himself to their rooms where they made their regulation toilet for dinner. The pair had asked questions of their guide, the gardener, who told them so much of Moreau's beauty that they felt the necessity of "rigging themselves up" (studio slang). They, therefore, put on their most superlative suits and then walked over to the steward's lodge, piloted by Jacques Moreau, the eldest son, a hardy youth, dressed like an English boy in a handsome jacket with a turned-over collar, who was spending his vacation like a fish in water on the estate where his father and mother reigned as aristocrats.
"Mamma," he said, "here are the two artists sent down by Monsieur Schinner."
Madame Moreau, agreeably surprised, rose, told her son to place chairs, and began to display her graces.
"Mamma, the Husson boy is with papa," added the lad; "shall I fetch him?"
"You need not hurry; go and play with him," said his mother.
The remark "you need not hurry" proved to the two artists the unimportance of their late travelling companion in the eyes of their hostess; but it also showed, what they did not know, the feeling of a step-mother against a step-son. Madame Moreau, after seventeen years of married life, could not be ignorant of the steward's attachment to Madame Clapart and the little Husson, and she hated both mother and child so vehemently that it is not surprising that Moreau had never before risked bringing Oscar to Presles.
"We are requested, my husband and myself," she said to the two artists, "to do you the honors of the chateau. We both love art, and, above all, artists," she added in a mincing tone; "and I beg you to make yourselves at home here. In the country, you know, every one should be at their ease; one must feel wholly at liberty, or life is too insipid. We have already had Monsieur Schinner with us."
Mistigris gave a sly glance at his companion.
"You know him, of course?" continued Estelle, after a slight pause.
"Who does not know him, madame?" said the painter.
"Knows him like his double," remarked Mistigris.
"Monsieur Grindot told me your name," said Madame Moreau to the painter. "But—"
"Joseph Bridau," he replied, wondering with what sort of woman he had to do.
Mistigris began to rebel internally against the patronizing manner of the steward's wife; but he waited, like Bridau, for some word which might give him his cue; one of those words "de singe a dauphin" which artists, cruel, born-observers of the ridiculous—the pabulum of their pencils—seize with such avidity. Meantime Estelle's clumsy hands and feet struck their eyes, and presently a word, or phrase or two, betrayed her past, and quite out of keeping with the elegance of her dress, made the two young fellows aware of their prey. A single glance at each other was enough to arrange a scheme that they should take Estelle seriously on her own ground, and thus find amusement enough during the time of their stay.
"You say you love art, madame; perhaps you cultivate it successfully," said Joseph Bridau.
"No. Without being neglected, my education was purely commercial; but I have so profound and delicate a sense of art that Monsieur Schinner always asked me, when he had finished a piece of work, to give him my opinion on it."
"Just as Moliere consulted La Foret," said Mistigris.
Not knowing that La Foret was Moliere's servant-woman, Madame Moreau inclined her head graciously, showing that in her ignorance she accepted the speech as a compliment.
"Didn't he propose to 'croquer' you?" asked Bridau. "Painters are eager enough after handsome women."
"What may you mean by such language?"
"In the studios we say croquer, craunch, nibble, for sketching," interposed Mistigris, with an insinuating air, "and we are always wanting to croquer beautiful heads. That's the origin of the expression, 'She is pretty enough to eat.'"
"I was not aware of the origin of the term," she replied, with the sweetest glance at Mistigris.
"My pupil here," said Bridau, "Monsieur Leon de Lora, shows a remarkable talent for portraiture. He would be too happy, I know, to leave you a souvenir of our stay by painting your charming head, madame."
Joseph Bridau made a sign to Mistigris which meant: "Come, sail in, and push the matter; she is not so bad in looks, this woman."
Accepting the glance, Leon de Lora slid down upon the sofa beside Estelle and took her hand, which she permitted.
"Oh! madame, if you would like to offer a surprise to your husband, and will give me a few secret sittings I would endeavor to surpass myself. You are so beautiful, so fresh, so charming! A man without any talent might become a genius in painting you. He would draw from your eyes—"
"We must paint your dear children in the arabesques," said Bridau, interrupting Mistigris.
"I would rather have them in the salon; but perhaps I am indiscreet in asking it," she replied, looking at Bridau coquettishly.
"Beauty, madame, is a sovereign whom all painters worship; it has unlimited claims upon them."
"They are both charming," thought Madame Moreau. "Do you enjoy driving? Shall I take you through the woods, after dinner, in my carriage?"
"Oh! oh! oh!" cried Mistigris, in three ecstatic tones. "Why, Presles will prove our terrestrial paradise."
"With an Eve, a fair, young, fascinating woman," added Bridau.
Just as Madame Moreau was bridling, and soaring to the seventh heaven, she was recalled like a kite by a twitch at its line.
"Madame!" cried her maid-servant, bursting into the room.
"Rosalie," said her mistress, "who allowed you to come here without being sent for?"
Rosalie paid no heed to the rebuke, but whispered in her mistress's ear:—
"The count is at the chateau."
"Has he asked for me?" said the steward's wife.
"No, madame; but he wants his trunk and the key of his apartment."
"Then give them to him," she replied, making an impatient gesture to hide her real trouble.
"Mamma! here's Oscar Husson," said her youngest son, bringing in Oscar, who turned as red as a poppy on seeing the two artists in evening dress.
"Oh! so you have come, my little Oscar," said Estelle, stiffly. "I hope you will now go and dress," she added, after looking at him contemptuously from head to foot. "Your mother, I presume, has not accustomed you to dine in such clothes as those."
"Oh!" cried the cruel Mistigris, "a future diplomatist knows the saying that 'two coats are better than none.'"
"How do you mean, a future diplomatist?" exclaimed Madame Moreau.
Poor Oscar had tears in his eyes as he looked in turn from Joseph to Leon.
"Merely a joke made in travelling," replied Joseph, who wanted to save Oscar's feelings out of pity.
"The boy just wanted to be funny like the rest of us, and he blagued, that's all," said Mistigris.
"Madame," said Rosalie, returning to the door of the salon, "his Excellency has ordered dinner for eight, and wants it served at six o'clock. What are we to do?"
During Estelle's conference with her head-woman the two artists and Oscar looked at each other in consternation; their glances were expressive of terrible apprehension.
"His Excellency! who is he?" said Joseph Bridau.
"Why, Monsieur le Comte de Serizy, of course," replied little Moreau.
"Could it have been the count in the coucou?" said Leon de Lora.
"Oh!" exclaimed Oscar, "the Comte de Serizy always travels in his own carriage with four horses."
"How did the Comte de Serizy get here?" said the painter to Madame Moreau, when she returned, much discomfited, to the salon.
"I am sure I do not know," she said. "I cannot explain to myself this sudden arrival; nor do I know what has brought him—And Moreau not here!"
"His Excellency wishes Monsieur Schinner to come over to the chateau," said the gardener, coming to the door of the salon. "And he begs Monsieur Schinner to give him the pleasure to dine with him; also Monsieur Mistigris."
"Done for!" cried the rapin, laughing. "He whom we took for a bourgeois in the coucou was the count. You may well say: 'Sour are the curses of perversity.'"
Oscar was very nearly changed to a pillar of salt; for, at this revelation, his throat felt saltier than the sea.
"And you, who talked to him about his wife's lovers and his skin diseases!" said Mistigris, turning on Oscar.
"What does he mean?" exclaimed the steward's wife, gazing after the two artists, who went away laughing at the expression of Oscar's face.
Oscar remained dumb, confounded, stupefied, hearing nothing, though Madame Moreau questioned him and shook him violently by his arm, which she caught and squeezed. She gained nothing, however, and was forced to leave him in the salon without an answer, for Rosalie appeared again, to ask for linen and silver, and to beg she would go herself and see that the multiplied orders of the count were executed. All the household, together with the gardeners and the concierge and his wife, were going and coming in a confusion that may readily be imagined. The master had fallen upon his own house like a bombshell.
From the top of the hill near La Cave, where he left the coach, the count had gone, by the path through the woods well-known to him, to the house of his gamekeeper. The keeper was amazed when he saw his real master.
"Is Moreau here?" said the count. "I see his horse."
"No, monseigneur; he means to go to Moulineaux before dinner, and he has left his horse here while he went to the chateau to give a few orders."
"If you value your place," said the count, "you will take that horse and ride at once to Beaumont, where you will deliver to Monsieur Margueron the note that I shall now write."
So saying the count entered the keeper's lodge and wrote a line, folding it in a way impossible to open without detection, and gave it to the man as soon as he saw him in the saddle.
"Not a word to any one," he said, "and as for you, madame," he added to the gamekeeper's wife, "if Moreau comes back for his horse, tell him merely that I have taken it."
The count then crossed the park and entered the court-yard of the chateau through the iron gates. However worn-out a man may be by the wear and tear of public life, by his own emotions, by his own mistakes and disappointments, the soul of any man able to love deeply at the count's age is still young and sensitive to treachery. Monsieur de Serizy had felt such pain at the thought that Moreau had deceived him, that even after hearing the conversation at Saint-Brice he thought him less an accomplice of Leger and the notary than their tool. On the threshold of the inn, and while that conversation was still going on, he thought of pardoning his steward after giving him a good reproof. Strange to say, the dishonesty of his confidential agent occupied his mind as a mere episode from the moment when Oscar revealed his infirmities. Secrets so carefully guarded could only have been revealed by Moreau, who had, no doubt, laughed over the hidden troubles of his benefactor with either Madame de Serizy's former maid or with the Aspasia of the Directory.
As he walked along the wood-path, this peer of France, this statesman, wept as young men weep; he wept his last tears. All human feelings were so cruelly hurt by one stroke that the usually calm man staggered through his park like a wounded deer.
When Moreau arrived at the gamekeeper's lodge and asked for his horse, the keeper's wife replied:—
"Monsieur le comte has just taken it."
"Monsieur le comte!" cried Moreau. "Whom do you mean?"
"Why, the Comte de Serizy, our master," she replied. "He is probably at the chateau by this time," she added, anxious to be rid of the steward, who, unable to understand the meaning of her words, turned back towards the chateau.
But he presently turned again and came back to the lodge, intending to question the woman more closely; for he began to see something serious in this secret arrival, and the apparently strange method of his master's return. But the wife of the gamekeeper, alarmed to find herself caught in a vise between the count and his steward, had locked herself into the house, resolved not to open to any but her husband. Moreau, more and more uneasy, ran rapidly, in spite of his boots and spurs, to the chateau, where he was told that the count was dressing.