"A gentleman, who wants to see me!" exclaimed the astonished baron. "You must be either romancing or mad, my good Pierre! There is no gentleman in the world who can have anything to say to me. However, for the rarity of the thing, you may bring in this extraordinary mortal—if such there really be, and you are not dreaming, as I shrewdly suspect. But tell me his name first, or hasn't he got any?"
"He declined to give it, saying that it would not afford your lordship any information," Pierre made answer, as he turned back and opened wide both leaves of the door.
Upon the threshold appeared a handsome young man, dressed in a rich and elegant travelling costume of chestnut brown cloth trimmed with green, and holding in his hand a broad felt hat with a long green plume; leaving his well shaped, proudly carried head fully exposed to view, as well as the delicate, regular features of a face worthy of an ancient Greek statue. The sight of this fine cavalier did not seem to make an agreeable impression upon de Sigognac, who turned very pale, and rushing to where his trusty sword was suspended, over the head of his bed, drew it from the scabbard, and turned to face the new-comer with the naked blade in his hand.
"By heaven, my lord duke, I believed that I had killed you!" he cried in excited tones. "Is it really you—your very self—or your wraith that stands before me?"
"It is really I—my very self—Hannibal de Vallombreuse, in the flesh, and no wraith; as far from being dead as possible," answered the young duke, with a radiant smile. "But put up that sword I pray you, my dear baron! We have fought twice already, you know, and surely that is enough. I do not come as an enemy, and if I have to reproach myself with some little sins against you, you have certainly had your revenge for them, so we are quits. To prove that my intentions are not hostile, but of the most friendly nature if you will so allow, I have brought credentials, in the shape of this commission, signed by the king, which gives you command of a regiment. My good father and I have reminded his majesty of the devotion of your illustrious ancestors to his royal ones, and I have ventured to bring you this good news in person. And now, as I am your guest, I pray you have something or other killed, I don't care what, and put on the spit to roast as quickly as may be—for the love of God give me something to eat—I am starving. The inns are so far apart and so abominably bad down here that there might almost as well be none at all, and my baggage-wagon, stocked with edibles, is stuck fast in a quagmire a long way from this. So you see the necessities of the case."
"I am very much afraid, my lord duke, that the fare I can offer will seem to you only another form of revenge on my part," said de Sigognac with playful courtesy; "but do not, I beseech you, attribute to resentment the meagre repast for which I shall be obliged to claim your indulgence. You must know how gladly I would put before you a sumptuous meal if I could; and what we can give you will at least, as my good Pierre says, satisfy hunger, though it may not gratify the palate. And let me now say that your frank and cordial words touch me deeply, and find an echo in my inmost heart. I am both proud and happy to call you my friend—henceforth you will not have one more loyal and devoted than myself—and though you may not often have need of my services, they will be, none the less, always at your disposition. Halloa! Pierre! do you go, without a moment's delay, and hunt up some fowls, eggs, meat, whatever you can find, and try to serve a substantial meal to this gentleman, my friend, who is nearly dying with hunger, and is not used to it like you and I."
Pierre put in his pocket some of the money his master had sent him from Paris—which he had never touched before—mounted the pony, and galloped off to the nearest village in search of provisions. He found several fowls—such as they were—a splendid Bayonne ham, a few bottles of fine old wine, and by great good luck, discovered, at the priest's house, a grand big pate of ducks' livers—a delicacy worthy of a bishop's or a prince's table—and which he had much difficulty to obtain from his reverence, who was a bit of a gourmand, at an almost fabulous price. But this was evidently a great occasion, and the faithful old servant would spare no pains to do it honour. In less than an hour he was at home again, and leaving the charge of the cooking to a capable woman he had found and sent out to the chateau, he immediately proceeded to set the table, in the ancient banqueting hall—gathering together all the fine porcelain and dainty glass that yet remained intact in the two tall buffets—evidences of former splendour. But the profusion of gold and silver plate that used to adorn the festive board of the de Sigognacs had all been converted into coin of the realm long ago.
When at last the old servant announced that dinner was ready, the two young men took their places opposite to each other at table, and Vallombreuse, who was in the gayest, most jovial mood, attacked the viands with an eagerness and ferocity immensely diverting to his host. After devouring almost the whole of a chicken, which, it is true, seemed to have died of a consumption, there was so little flesh on its bones, he fell back upon the tempting, rosy slices of the delicate Bayonne ham, and then passed to the pate of ducks' livers, which he declared to be supremely delicious, exquisite, ambrosial—food fit for the gods; and he found the sharp cheese, made of goat's milk, which followed, an excellent relish. He praised the wine, too—which was really very old and fine and drank it with great gusto, out of his delicate Venetian wine-glass. Once, when he caught sight of Pierre's bewildered, terrified look, as he heard his master address his merry guest as the Duke of Vallombreuse—who ought to be dead, if he was not—he fairly roared with laughter, and was as full of fun and frolic as a school-boy out for a holiday; Meantime de Sigognac, whilst he endeavoured to play the attentive host, and to respond as well as he could to the young duke's lively sallies, could not recover from his surprise at seeing him sitting there opposite to himself, as a guest at his own table—making himself very much at home, too, in the most charming, genial, easy way imaginable—and yet he was the haughty, overbearing, insolent young nobleman, who had been his hated rival; whom he had twice encountered and defeated, in fierce combat, and who had several times tried to compass his death by means of hired ruffians. What could be the explanation of it all?
The Duke of Vallombreuse divined his companion's thoughts, and when the old servant had retired, after placing a bottle of especially choice wine and two small glasses on the table, he looked up at de Sigognac and said, with the most amicable frankness, "I can plainly perceive, my dear baron, in spite of your admirable courtesy, that this unexpected step of mine appears very strange and inexplicable to you. You have been saying to yourself, How in the world has it come about, that the arrogant, imperious Vallombreuse has been transformed, from the unscrupulous, cruel, blood-thirsty tiger that he was, into the peaceable, playful lamb he seems to be now—which a 'gentle shepherdess' might lead about with a ribbon round its neck!—I will tell you. During the six weeks that I was confined to my bed, I made various reflections, which the thoughtless might pronounce cowardly, but which are permitted to the bravest and most valiant when death stares them in the face. I realized then, for the first time, the relative value of many things, and also how wrong and wicked my own course had been; and I promised myself to do very differently for the future, if I recovered. As the passionate love that Isabelle inspired in my heart had been replaced by a pure and sacred fraternal affection—which is the greatest blessing of my life—I had no further reason to dislike you. You were no longer my rival; a brother cannot be jealous in that way of his own sister; and then, I was deeply grateful to you, for the respectful tenderness and deference I knew you had never failed to manifest towards her, when she was in a position that authorized great license. You were the first to recognise her pure, exalted soul, while she was still only an obscure actress. When she was poor, and despised by those who will cringe to her now, you offered to her—lowly as was her station—the most precious treasure that a nobleman can possess: the time-honoured name of his ancestors. You would have made her your wife then—now that she is rich, and of high rank, she belongs to you of right. The true, faithful lover of Isabelle, the actress, should be the honoured husband of the Comtesse de Lineuil."
"But you forget," cried de Sigognac, in much agitation, "that she always absolutely refused me, though she knew that I was perfectly disinterested."
"It was because of her supreme delicacy, her angelic susceptibility, and her noble spirit of self-sacrifice that she said that. She feared that she would necessarily be a disadvantage to you—an obstacle in the way of your advancement. But the situation is entirely changed now."
"Yes, now it is I who would be a disadvantage to her; have I then a right to be less generous and magnanimous than she was?"
"Do you still love my sister?" said Vallombreuse, in a grave tone. "As her brother, I have the right to ask this question."
"I love her with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength," de Sigognac replied fervently, "as much and more than ever man loved woman on this earth—where nothing is perfect—save Isabelle."
"Such being the case, my dear Captain of Mousquetaires, and governor of a province—soon to be—have your horse saddled, and come with me to the Chateau of Vallombreuse, so that I may formally present you to the prince, my father, as the favoured suitor of the Comtesse de Lineuil, my sister. Isabelle has refused even to think of the Chevalier de Vidalinc, or the Marquis de l'Estang, as aspirants to her hand—both right handsome, attractive, eligible young fellows, by Jove!—but I am of opinion that she will accept, without very much persuasion, the Baron de Sigognac."
The next day the duke and the baron were riding gaily forward, side by side, on the road to Paris.
CHAPTER XX. CHIQUITA'S DECLARATION OF LOVE
A compact crowd filled the Place de Greve, despite the early hour indicated by the clock of the Hotel de Ville.
The tall buildings on the eastern side of the square threw their shadows more than half-way across it, and upon a sinister-looking wooden framework, which rose several feet above the heads of the populace, and bore a number of ominous, dull red stains. At the windows of the houses surrounding the crowded square, a few heads were to be seen looking out from time to time, but quickly drawn back again as they perceived that the interesting performance, for which all were waiting, had not yet begun. Clinging to the transverse piece of the tall stone cross, which stood at that side of the open square nearest the river, was a forlorn, little, ragged boy, who had climbed up to it with the greatest difficulty, and was holding on with all his might, his arms clasped round the cross-piece and his legs round the upright, in a most painful and precarious position. But nothing would have induced him to abandon it, so long as he could possibly maintain himself there, no matter at what cost of discomfort, or even actual distress, for from it he had a capital view of the scaffold, and all its horribly fascinating details—the wheel upon which the criminal was to revolve, the coil of rope to bind him to it, and the heavy bar to break his bones.
If any one among the anxious crowd of spectators, however, had carefully studied the small, thin countenance of the child perched up on the tall stone cross, he would have discovered that its expression was by no means that of vulgar curiosity. It was not simply the fierce attractions of an execution that had drawn thither this wild, weird-looking young creature, with his sun-burned complexion, great, flashing, dark eyes, brilliant white teeth, unkempt masses of thick, black hair, and slender brown hands—which were convulsively clinging to the rough, cold stone. The delicacy of the features would seem to indicate a different sex from the dress—but nobody paid any attention to the child, And all eyes were turned towards the scaffold, or the direction from which the cart bearing the condemned criminal was to come. Among the groups close around the scaffold were several faces we have seen before; notably, the chalky countenance and fiery red nose of Malartic, and the bold profile of Jacquemin Lampourde, also several of the ruffians engaged in the abduction of Isabelle, as well as various other habitues of the Crowned Radish. The Place de Greve, to which sooner or later they were all pretty sure to come and expiate their crimes with their lives, seemed to exercise a singular fascination over murderers, thieves, and criminals of all sorts, who invariably gathered in force to witness an execution. They evidently could not resist it, and appeared to find a fierce satisfaction in watching the terrible spectacle that they themselves would some day probably furnish to the gaping multitude. Then the victim himself always expected his friends' attendance—he would be hurt and disappointed if his comrades did not rally round him at the last. A criminal in that position likes to see familiar faces in the throng that hems him in. It gives him courage, steadies his nerves.
He cannot exhibit any signs of cowardice before those who appreciate true merit and bravery, according to his way of thinking, and pride comes to his aid. A man will meet death like a Roman under such circumstances, who would be weak as a woman if he were despatched in private.
The criminal to be executed on that occasion was a thief, already notorious in Paris for his daring and dexterity, though he had only been there a few months. But, unfortunately for himself—though very much the reverse for the well-to-do citizens of the capital in general—he had not confined himself to his legitimate business. In his last enterprise—breaking into a private dwelling to gain possession of a large sum of money that was to be kept there for a single night—he had killed the master of the house, who was aroused by his entrance; and, not content to stop there, had also brutally murdered his wife, as she lay quietly sleeping in her bed—like a tiger, that has tasted blood and is wild for more. So atrocious a crime had roused the indignation of even his own unscrupulous, hardened companions, and it was not long ere his hiding-place was mysteriously revealed, and he was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. Now he was to pay the penalty of his guilt.
As the fatal hour approached, a carriage drove down along the quay, turned into the Place de Greve, and attempted to cross it; but, becoming immediately entangled in the crowd, could make little or no progress, despite the utmost exertions of the majestic coachman and attendant lackeys to induce the people to make way for it, and let it pass.
But for the grand coat of arms and ducal coronet emblazoned on the panels, which inspired a certain awe as well as respect in the motley throng of pedestrians, the equipage would undoubtedly have been roughly dealt with-but as it was, they contented themselves with resolutely and obstinately barring its passage, after it had reached the middle of the square. The indignant coachman did not dare to urge his spirited horses forward at all hazards, ruthlessly trampling down the unlucky individuals who happened to be directly in his way, as he would certainly have done in any ordinary crowd, for the canaille, that filled the Place de Greve to overflowing, was out in too great force to be trifled with—so there was nothing for it but patience.
"These rascals are waiting for an execution, and will not stir, nor let us stir, until it is over," said a remarkably handsome young man, magnificently dressed, to his equally fine looking, though more modestly attired friend, who was seated beside him in the luxurious carriage. "The devil take the unlucky dog who must needs be broken on the wheel just when we want to cross the Place de Greve. Why couldn't he have put it off until to-morrow morning, I should like to know!"
"You may be sure that the poor wretch would be only too glad to do so if he could," answered the other, "for the occasion is a far more serious matter to him than to us."
"The best thing we can do under the circumstances, my dear de Sigognac, is to turn our heads away if the spectacle is too revolting—though it is by no means easy, when something horrible is taking place close at hand. Even Saint Augustine opened his eyes in the arena at a loud cheer from the people, though he had vowed to himself beforehand to keep them closed."
"At all events, we shall not be detained here long," rejoined de Sigognac, "for there comes the prisoner. See, Vallombreuse, how the crowd gives way before him, though it will not let us move an inch."
A rickety cart, drawn by a miserable old skeleton of a horse, and surrounded by mounted guards, was slowly advancing through the dense throng towards the scaffold. In it were a venerable priest, with a long white beard, who was holding a crucifix to the lips of the condemned man, seated beside him, the executioner, placed behind his victim, and holding the end of the rope that bound him, and an assistant, who was driving the poor old horse. The criminal, whom every one turned to gaze at, was no other than our old acquaintance, Agostino, the brigand.
"Why, what is this!" cried de Sigognac, in great surprise. "I know that man—he is the fellow who stopped us on the highway, and tried to frighten us with his band of scarecrows, as poor Matamore called them. I told you all about it when we came by the place where it happened."
"Yes, I remember perfectly," said Vallombreuse; "it was a capital story, and I had a good laugh over it. But it would seem that the ingenious rascal has been up to something more serious since then—his ambition has probably been his ruin. He certainly is no coward—only look what a good face he puts on it."
Agostino, holding his head proudly erect, but a trifle paler than usual perhaps, seemed to be searching for some one in the crowd. When the cart passed slowly in front of the stone cross, he caught sight of the little boy, who had not budged from his excessively uncomfortable and wearisome position, and a flash of joy shone in the brigand's eyes, a slight smile parted his lips, as he made an almost imperceptible sign with his head, and said, in a low tone, "Chiquita!"
"My son, what was that strange word you spoke?" asked the priest. "It sounded like an outlandish woman's name. Dismiss all such subjects from your mind, and fix your thoughts on your own hopes of salvation, for you stand on the threshold of eternity."
"Yes, my father, I know it but too well, and though my hair is black and my form erect, whilst you are bowed with age, and your long beard is white as snow, you are younger now than I—every turn of the wheels, towards that scaffold yonder, ages me by ten years."
During this brief colloquy the cart had made steady progress, and in a moment more had stopped at the foot of the rude wooden steps that led up to the scaffold, which Agostino ascended slowly but unfalteringly—preceded by the assistant, supported by the priest, and followed by the executioner. In less than a minute he was firmly bound upon the wheel, and the executioner, having thrown off his showy scarlet cloak, braided with white, and rolled up his sleeves, stooped to pick up the terrible bar that lay at his feet. It was a moment of intense horror and excitement. An anxious curiosity, largely mixed with dread, oppressed the hearts of the spectators, who stood motionless, breathless, with pale faces, and straining eyes fixed upon the tragic group on the fatal scaffold. Suddenly a strange stir ran through the crowd—the child, who was perched up on the cross, had slipped quickly down to the ground, and gliding like a serpent through the closely packed throng, reached the scaffold, cleared the steps at a bound, and appeared beside the astonished executioner, who was just in the act of raising the ponderous bar to strike, with such a wild, ghastly, yet inspired and noble countenance—lighted up by a strength of will and purpose that made it actually sublime—that the grim dealer of death paused involuntarily, and withheld the murderous blow about to fall.
"Get out of my way, thou puppet!" he roared in angry tones, as he recovered his sang-froid, "or thou wilt get thy accursed head smashed."
But Chiquita paid no attention to him—she did not care whether she was killed too, or not. Bending over Agostino, she passionately kissed his forehead, whispered "I love thee!"—and then, with a blow as swift as lightning, plunged into his heart the knife she had reclaimed from Isabelle. It was dealt with so firm a hand, and unerring an aim, that death was almost instantaneous—scarcely had Agostino time to murmur "Thanks."
With a wild burst of hysterical laughter the child sprang down from the scaffold, while the executioner, stupefied at her bold deed, lowered his now useless club; uncertain whether or not he should proceed to break the bones of the man already dead, and beyond his power to torture.
"Well done, Chiquita, well done, and bravely!" cried Malartic—who had recognised her in spite of her boy's clothes—losing his self-restraint in his admiration. The other ruffians, who had seen Chiquita at the Crowned Radish, and wondered at and admired her courage when she stood against the door and let Agostino fling his terrible navaja at her without moving a muscle, now grouped themselves closely together so as to effectually prevent the soldiers from pursuing her. The fracas that ensued gave Chiquita time to reach the carriage of the Duke of Vallombreuse—which, taking advantage of the stir and shifting in the throng, was slowly making its way out of the Place de Greve. She climbed up on the step, and catching sight of de Sigognac within, appealed to him, in scarcely audible words, as she panted and trembled—"I saved your Isabelle, now save me!"
Vallombreuse, who had been very much interested by this strange and exciting scene, cried to the coachman, "Get on as fast as you can, even if you have to drive over the people."
But there was no need—the crowd opened as if by magic before the carriage, and closed again compactly after it had passed, so that Chiquita's pursuers could not penetrate it, or make any progress—they were completely baffled, whichever way they turned. Meanwhile the fugitive was being rapidly carried beyond their reach. As soon as the open street was gained, the coachman had urged his horses forward, and in a very few minutes they reached the Porte Saint Antoine. As the report of what had occurred in the Place de Greve could not have preceded them, Vallombreuse thought it better to proceed at a more moderate pace—fearing that their very speed might arouse suspicion—and gave orders accordingly; as soon as they were fairly beyond the gate he took Chiquita into the carriage—where she seated herself, without a word, opposite to de Sigognac. Under the calmest exterior she was filled with a preternatural excitement—not a muscle of her face moved; but a bright flush glowed on her usually pale cheeks, which gave to her magnificent dark eyes—now fixed upon vacancy, and seeing nothing that was before them—a marvellous brilliancy. A complete transformation had taken place in Chiquita—this violent shock had torn asunder the childish chrysalis in which the young maiden had lain dormant—as she plunged her knife into Agostino's heart she opened her own. Her love was born of that murder—the strange, almost sexless being, half child, half goblin, that she had been until then, existed no longer—Chiquita was a woman from the moment of that heroic act of sublime devotion. Her passion, that had bloomed out in one instant, was destined to be eternal—a kiss and a stab, that was Chiquita's love story.
The carriage rolled smoothly and swiftly on its way towards Vallombreuse, and when the high, steep roof of the chateau came in sight the young duke said to de Sigognac, "You must go with me to my room first, where you can get rid of the dust, and freshen up a bit before I present you to my sister—who knows nothing whatever of my journey, or its motive. I have prepared a surprise for her, and I want it to be complete—so please draw down the curtain on your side, while I do the same on mine, in order that we may not be seen, as we drive into the court, from any of the windows that command a view of it. But what are we to do with this little wretch here?"
Chiquita, who was roused from her deep reverie by the duke's question, looked gravely up at him, and said, "Let some one take me to Mlle. Isabelle—she will decide what is to be done with me."
With all the curtains carefully drawn down the carriage drove over the drawbridge and into the court. Vallombreuse alighted, took de Sigognac's arm, and led him silently to his own apartment, after having ordered a servant to conduct Chiquita to the presence of the Comtesse de Lineuil. At sight of her Isabelle was greatly astonished, and, laying down the book she was reading, fixed upon the poor child a look full of interest, affection, and questioning.
Chiquita stood silent and motionless until the servant had retired, then, with a strange solemnity, which was entirely new in her, she went up to Isabelle, and timidly taking her hand, said:
"My knife is in Agostino's heart. I have no master now, and I must devote myself to somebody. Next to him who is dead I love you best of all the world. You gave me the pearl necklace I wished for, and you kissed me. Will you have me for your servant, your slave, your dog? Only give me a black dress, so that I may wear mourning for my lost love—it is all I ask. I will sleep on the floor outside your door, so that I shall not be in your way. When you want me, whistle for me, like this,"—and she whistled shrilly—"and I will come instantly. Will you have me?"
In answer Isabelle drew Chiquita into her arms, pressed her lips to the girl's forehead warmly, and thankfully accepted this soul, that dedicated itself to her.
CHAPTER XXI. HYMEN! OH HYMEN!
Isabelle, accustomed to Chiquita's odd, enigmatical ways, had refrained from questioning her—waiting to ask for explanations until the poor girl should have become more quiet, and able to give them. She could see that some terrible catastrophe must have occurred, which had left all her nerves quivering, and caused the strong shudders that passed over her in rapid succession; but the child had rendered her such good service, in her own hour of need, that she felt the least she could do was to receive and care for the poor little waif tenderly, without making any inquiries as to her evidently desperate situation. After giving her in charge to her own maid, with orders that she should be properly clothed, and made thoroughly comfortable in every way, Isabelle resumed her reading—or rather tried to resume it; but her thoughts would wander, and after mechanically turning over a few pages in a listless way, she laid the book down, beside her neglected embroidery, on a little table at her elbow. Leaning her head on her hand, and closing her eyes, she lapsed into a sorrowful reverie—as, indeed, she had done of late many times every day.
"Oh! what has become of de Sigognac?" she said to herself. "Where can he be? and does he still think of me, and love me as of old? Yes, I am sure he does; he will be true and faithful to me so long as he lives, my brave, devoted knight! I fear that he has gone back to his desolate, old chateau, and, believing that my brother is dead, does not dare to approach me. It must be that chimerical obstacle that stands in his way—otherwise he would surely have tried to see me again—or at least have written to me. Perhaps I ought to have sent him word that Vallombreuse had recovered; yet how could I do that? A modest woman shrinks from even seeming to wish to entice her absent lover back to her side. How often I think that I should be far happier if I could have remained as I was—an obscure actress; then I could at least have had the bliss of seeing him every day, and of enjoying in peace the sweetness of being loved by such a noble, tender heart as his. Despite the touching affection and devotion that my princely father lavishes upon me, I feel sad and lonely in this magnificent chateau. If Vallombreuse were only here his society would help to pass the time; but he is staying away so long—and I try in vain to make out what he meant when he told me, with such a significant smile, as he bade me adieu, that I would be pleased with what he was about to do. Sometimes I fancy that I do understand; but I dare not indulge myself with such blissful thoughts for an instant. If I did, and were mistaken after all, the disappointment would be too cruel—too heart-rending. But, if it only could be true! ah! if it only might! I fear I should go mad with excess of joy."
The young Comtesse de Lineuil was still absorbed in sad thoughts when a tall lackey appeared, and asked if she would receive his lordship, the Duke of Vallombreuse who had just arrived, at the chateau and desired to speak with her.
"Certainly, I shall be delighted to see him," she said in glad surprise; "ask him to come to me at once."
In a few minutes—which had seemed like hours to Isabelle—the young duke made his appearance, with beaming eyes, rosy cheeks, light, elastic step, and that air of glorious health and vigour which had distinguished him before his illness. He threw down his broad felt hat as he came in, and, hastening to his sister's side, took her pretty white hands and raised them to his lips.
"Dearest Isabelle," he cried, "I am so rejoiced to see you again! I was obliged to stay away from you much longer than I wished, for it is a great deprivation to me now not to be with you every day—I have gotten so thoroughly into the habit of depending upon your sweet society. But I have been occupied entirely with your interests during my absence, and the hope of pleasing my darling sister, and adding to her happiness, has helped me to endure the long separation from her."
"The way to please me most, as you ought to have known," Isabelle replied, "was to stay here at home quietly with your father and me, and let us take care of you, instead of rushing off so rashly—with your wound scarcely healed, or your health fully re-established—on some foolish errand or other, that you were not willing to acknowledge."
"Was I ever really wounded, or ill?" said Vallombreuse, laughing. "Upon my word I had forgotten all about it. Never in my life was I in better health than at this moment, and my little expedition has done me no end of good. But you, my sweet sister, are not looking as well as when I left you; you have grown thin and pale. What is the matter? I fear that you find your life here at the chateau very dull. Solitude and seclusion are not at all the thing for a beautiful young woman, I know. Reading and embroidery are but melancholy pastimes at best and there must be moments when even the gravest, most sedate of maidens grows weary of gazing out upon the stagnant waters of the moat, and longs to look upon the face of a handsome young knight."
"Oh! what an unmerciful tease you are, Vallombreuse, and how you do love to torment me with these strange fancies of yours. You forget that I have had the society of the prince, who is so kind and devoted to me, and who abounds in wise and instructive discourse."
"Yes, there is no doubt that our worthy father is a most learned and accomplished gentleman, honoured and admired at home and abroad; but his pursuits and occupations are too grave and weighty for you to share, my dear little sister, and I don't want to see your youth passed altogether in such a solemn way. As you would not smile upon my friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc, nor condescend to listen to the suit of the Marquis de l'Estang, I concluded to go in search of somebody that would be more likely to please your fastidious taste, and, my dear, I have found him. Such a charming, perfect, ideal husband he will make! I am convinced that you will dote upon him."
"It is downright cruelty, Vallombreuse, to persecute me as you do, with such unfeeling jests. You know perfectly well that I do not wish to marry; I cannot give my hand without my heart, and my heart is not mine to give."
"But you will talk very differently, I do assure you, my dear little sister, when you see the husband I have chosen for you."
"Never! never!" cried Isabelle, whose voice betrayed her distress. "I shall always be faithful to a memory that is infinitely dear and precious to me; for I cannot think that you intend to force me to act against my will."
"Oh, no! I am not quite such a tyrant as that; I only ask you not to reject my protege before you have seen him."
Without waiting for her reply, Vallombreuse abruptly left the room, and returned in a moment with de Sigognac, whose heart was throbbing as if it would burst out of his breast. The two young men, hand in hand, paused on the threshold, hoping that Isabelle would turn her eyes towards them; but she modestly cast them down and kept them fixed upon the floor, while her thoughts flew far away, to hover about the beloved being who she little dreamed was so near her. Vallombreuse, seeing that she took no notice of them, and had fallen into a reverie, advanced towards her, still holding de Sigognac by the hand, and made a ceremonious bow, as did also his companion; but while the young duke was smiling and gay, de Sigognac was deeply agitated, and very pale. Brave as a lion when he had to do with men, he was timid with women—as are all generous, manly hearts.
"Comtesse de Lineuil," said Vallombreuse, in an emphatic tone of voice, "permit me to present to you one of my dearest friends, for whom I entreat your favour—the Baron de Sigognac."
As he pronounced this name, which she at first believed to be a jest on her brother's part, Isabelle started, trembled violently, and then glanced up timidly at the newcomer.
When she saw that Vallombreuse had not deceived her, that it was really he, her own true lover, standing there before her, she turned deathly pale, and had nearly fallen from her chair; then the quick reaction came, and a most lovely blush spread itself all over her fair face, and even her snowy neck, as far as it could be seen. Without a word, she sprang up, and throwing her arms round her brother's neck hid her face on his shoulder, while two or three convulsive sobs shook her slender frame and a little shower of tears fell from her eyes. By this instinctive movement, so exquisitely modest and truly feminine, Isabelle manifested all the exceeding delicacy and purity of her nature. Thus were her warm thanks to Vallombreuse, whose kindness and generosity overcame her, mutely expressed; and as she could not follow the dictates of her heart, and throw herself into her lover's arms, she took refuge in her transport of joy with her brother, who had restored him to her.
Vallombreuse supported her tenderly for a few moments, until he found she was growing calmer, when he gently disengaged himself from her clasping arms, and drawing down the hands with which she had covered her face, to hide its tears and blushes, said, "My sweet sister, do not, I pray you, hide your lovely face from us; I fear my protege will be driven to believe that you entertain such an invincible dislike to him you will not even look at him."
Isabelle raised her drooping head, and turning full upon de Sigognac her glorious eyes, shining with a celestial joy, in spite of the sparkling tear-drops that still hung upon their long lashes, held out to him her beautiful white hand, which he took reverentially in both his own, and bending down pressed fervently to his lips. The passionate kiss he imprinted upon it thrilled through Isabelle's whole being, and for a second she turned faint and giddy; but the delicious ecstasy, which is almost anguish, of such emotion as hers, is never hurtful, and she presently looked up and smiled reassuringly upon her anxious lover, as the colour returned to her lips and cheeks, and the warm light to her eyes.
"And now tell me, my sweet little sister," began Vallombreuse, with an air of triumph, and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, "wasn't I right when I declared that you would smile upon the husband I had chosen for you? and would not be discouraged, though you were so obstinate? If I had not been equally so, this dear de Sigognac would have gone back to his far-away chateau, without even having seen you; and that would have been a pity, as you must admit."
"Yes, I do admit it, my dearest brother, and also that you have been adorably kind and good to me. You were the only one who, under the circumstances, could bring about this reunion, and we both know how to appreciate what you have so nobly and generously done for us."
"Yes, indeed," said de Sigognac warmly; "your brother has given us ample proof of the nobility and generosity of his nature—he magnanimously put aside the resentment that might seem legitimate, and came to me with his hand outstretched, and his heart in it. He revenges himself nobly for the harm I was obliged to do him, by imposing an eternal gratitude upon me—a light burden, that I shall bear joyfully so long as I live."
"Say nothing more about that, my dear baron!" Vallombreuse exclaimed. "You would have done as much in my place. The differences of two valiant adversaries are very apt to end in a warm mutual attachment—we were destined from the beginning to become, sooner or later, a devoted pair of friends; like Theseus and Pirithous, Nisus and Euryalus, or Damon and Pythias. But never mind about me now, and tell my sister how you were thinking of her, and longing for her, in that lonely chateau of yours; where, by the way, I made one of the best meals I ever had in my life, though you do pretend that starvation is the rule down there."
"And I had a charming supper there too," said Isabelle with a smile, "which I look back upon with the greatest pleasure."
"Nevertheless," rejoined de Sigognac, "plenty does not abound there—but I cannot regret the blessed poverty that was the means of first winning me your regard, my precious darling! I am thankful for it—I owe everything to it."
"I am of opinion," interrupted Vallombreuse, with a significant smile, "that it would be well for me to go and report myself to my father. I want to announce your arrival to him myself, de Sigognac! Not that he will need to be specially prepared to receive you, for I am bound to confess—what may surprise my little sister here—that he knew such a thing might come about, and was equally implicated with my graceless self in this little conspiracy. But one thing yet—tell me before I go, Isabelle, Comtesse de Lineuil, whether you really do intend to accept the Baron de Sigognac as your husband—I don't want to run any risk of making a blunder at this stage of the proceedings, you understand, after having conducted the negotiations successfully up to this point. You do definitely and finally accept him, eh?—that is well—and now I will go to the prince. Engaged lovers sometimes have matters to discuss that even a brother may not hear, so I will leave you together, feeling sure that you will both thank me for it in your hearts. Adieu!—make the most of your time, for I shall soon return to conduct de Sigognac to the prince."
With a laughing nod the young duke picked up his hat and went away, leaving the two happy lovers alone together, and—however agreeable his company may have been to them, it must be admitted that his absence was, as he had predicted, very welcome to both. The Baron de Sigognac eagerly approached Isabelle, and—again possessed himself of her fair hand, which she did not withdraw from his warm, loving clasp. Neither spoke, and for a few minutes the fond lovers stood side by side and gazed into each other's eyes. Such silence is more eloquent than any words. At last de Sigognac said softly, "I can scarcely believe even yet in the reality of so much bliss. Oh! what a strange, contradictory destiny is mine. You loved me, my darling, because I was poor and unhappy—and thus my past misery was the direct cause of my present felicity. A troupe of strolling actors, who chanced to seek refuge under my crumbling roof, held in reserve for me an angel of purity and goodness—a hostile encounter has given me a devoted friend—and, most wonderful of all, your forcible abduction led to your meeting the fond father who had been seeking you so many years in vain. And all this because a Thespian chariot went astray one stormy night in the Landes."
"We were destined for each other—it was all arranged for us in heaven above. Twin souls are sure to come together at last, if they can only have patience to wait for the meeting. I felt instinctively, when we met at the Chateau de Sigognac, that you were my fate. At sight of you my heart, which had always lain dormant before, and never responded to any appeal, thrilled within me, and, unasked, yielded to you all its love and allegiance. Your very timidity won more for you than the greatest boldness and assurance could have done, and from the first moment of our acquaintance I resolved never to give myself to any one but you, or God."
"And yet, cruel, hard-hearted child that you were—though so divinely good and lovely—you refused your hand to me, when I sued for it on my knees. I know well that it was all through generosity, and that of the noblest—but, my darling, it was a very cruel generosity too."
"I will do my best to atone for it now, my dearest de Sigognac, in giving you this hand you wished for, together with my heart, which has long been all your own. The Comtesse de Lineuil is not bound to be governed by the scruples of Isabelle, the actress. I have had only one fear—that your pride might keep you from ever seeking me again as I am now. But, even if you had given me up, you would never have loved another woman, would you, de Sigognac? You would have been faithful to me always, even though you had renounced me—I felt so sure of that. Were you thinking of me down there in your ancient chateau, when Vallombreuse broke in upon your solitude?"
"My dearest Isabelle, by day I had only one thought—of you—and at night, when I kissed the sacred pillow on which your lovely head had rested, before laying my own down upon it, I besought the god of dreams to show me your adored image while I slept."
"And were your prayers sometimes answered?"
"Always—not once was I disappointed—and only when morning came did you leave me, vanishing through 'the ivory gates.' Oh I how interminable the sad, lonely days seemed to me, and how I wished that I could sleep, and dream of you, my angel, all the weary time."
"I saw you also in my dreams, many nights in succession. Our souls must have met, de Sigognac, while our bodies lay wrapped in slumber. But now, thanks be to God, we are reunited—and forever. The prince, my father, knew and approved of your being brought here, Vallombreuse said, so we can have no opposition to our wishes to fear from him. He has spoken to me of you several times of late in very flattering terms; looking at me searchingly, the while, in a way that greatly agitated and troubled me, for I did not know what might be in his mind, as Vallombreuse had not then told me that he no longer hated you, and I feared that he would always do so after his double defeat at your hands. But all the terrible anxiety is over now, my beloved, and blessed peace and happiness lie before us."
At this moment the door opened, and the young duke announced to de Sigognac that his father was waiting to receive him. The baron immediately rose from his seat beside Isabelle, bowed low to her, and followed Vallombreuse to the prince's presence. The aged nobleman, dressed entirely in black, and with his breast covered with orders, was sitting in a large arm-chair at a table heaped up with books and papers, with which he had evidently been occupied. His attitude was stately and dignified, and the expression of his noble, benevolent countenance affable in the extreme. He rose to receive de Sigognac, gave him a cordial greeting, and politely bade him be seated.
"My dear father," said Vallombreuse, "I present to you the Baron de Sigognac; formerly my rival, now my friend, and soon to be my brother, if you consent. Any improvement that you may see in me is due to his influence, and it is no light obligation that I owe to him—though he will not admit that there is any. The baron comes to ask a favour of you, which I shall rejoice to see accorded to him."
The prince made a gesture of acquiescence, and looked reassuringly at de Sigognac, as if inviting him to speak fearlessly for himself. Encouraged by the expression of his eyes, the baron rose, and, with a low bow, said, in clear, distinct tones, "Prince, I am here to ask of you the hand of Mlle. la Comtesse Isabelle de Lineuil, your daughter."
The old nobleman looked at him steadily and searchingly for a moment, and then, as if satisfied with his scrutiny, answered: "Baron de Sigognac, I accede to your request, and consent to this alliance, with great pleasure—so far, that is, as my paternal will accords with the wishes of my beloved daughter—whom I should never attempt to coerce in anything. The Comtesse de Lineuil must be consulted in this matter, and herself decide the question which is of such vital importance to her. I cannot undertake to answer for her—the whims and fancies of young ladies are sometimes so odd and unexpected."
The prince said this with a mischievous smile—as if he had not long known that Isabelle loved de Sigognac with all her heart, and was pining for him. After a brief pause, he added: "Vallombreuse, go and fetch your sister, for, without her, I cannot give a definite answer to the Baron de Sigognac."
The young duke accordingly went for Isabelle, who was greatly alarmed at this summons, and obeyed it in fear and trembling. Despite her brother's assurances, she could not bring herself to believe in the reality of such great happiness. Her breast heaved tumultuously, her face was very pale, at each step her knees threatened to give way under her, and when her father drew her fondly to his side she was forced to grasp the arm of his chair tightly, to save herself from falling.
"My daughter," said the prince gravely, "here is a gentleman who does you the honour to sue for your hand. For my own part, I should hail this union with joy—for he is of an ancient and illustrious family, of stainless reputation and tried courage, and appears to me to possess every qualification that heart could desire. I am perfectly satisfied with him—but has he succeeded in pleasing you, my child? Young heads do not always agree with gray ones. Examine your own heart carefully, and tell me if you are willing to accept the Baron de Sigognac as your husband. Take plenty of time to consider—you shall not be hurried, my dear child, in so grave a matter as this."
The prince's kindly, cordial smile gave evidence that he was in a playful mood, and Isabelle, plucking up courage, threw her arms round her father's neck, and said in the softest tones, "There is no need for me to consider or hesitate, my dear lord and father! Since the Baron de Sigognac is so happy as to please you, I confess, freely and frankly, that I have loved him ever since we first met, and have never wished for any other alliance. To obey, you in this will be my highest happiness."
"And now clasp hands, my children, and exchange the kiss of betrothal," cried the Duke of Vallombreuse gaily. "Verily, the romance ends more happily than could have been expected after such a stormy beginning. And now the next question is, when shall the wedding be?"
"It will take a little time to make due preparation," said the prince. "So many people must be set to work, in order that the marriage of my only daughter may be worthily celebrated. Meanwhile, Isabelle, here is your dowry, the deed of the estate of Lineuil—from which you derive your title, and which yields you an income of fifty thousand crowns per annum—together with rent-rolls, and all the various documents appertaining thereto"—and he handed a formidable roll of papers to her. "As to you, my dear de Sigognac, I have here for you a royal ordinance, which constitutes you governor of a province; and no one, I venture to say, could be more worthy of this distinguished honour than yourself."
Vallombreuse, who had gone out of the room while his father was speaking, now made his appearance, followed by a servant carrying a box covered with crimson velvet.
He took it from the lackey at the door, and advancing, placed it upon the table in front of Isabelle.
"My dear little sister," said he, "will you accept this from me as a wedding gift?"
On the cover was inscribed "For Isabelle," in golden letters, and it contained the very casket which the Duke of Vallombreuse had offered at Poitiers to the young actress, and which she had so indignantly refused to receive, or even look at.
"You will accept it this time?" he pleaded, with a radiant smile; "and honour these diamonds of finest water, and these pearls of richest lustre, by wearing them, for my sake. They are not more pure and beautiful than yourself."
Isabelle smilingly took up a magnificent necklace and clasped it round her fair neck, to show that she harboured no resentment; then put the exquisite bracelets on her round, white arms, and decked herself with the various superb ornaments that the beautiful casket contained.
And now we have only to add, that a week later Isabelle and de Sigognac were united in marriage in the chapel at Vallombreuse, which was brilliantly lighted, and filled with fragrance from the profusion of flowers that converted it into a very bower. The music was heavenly, the fair bride adorably beautiful, with her long white veil floating about her, and the Baron de Sigognac radiant with happiness. The Marquis de Bruyeres was one of his witnesses, and a most brilliant and aristocratic assemblage "assisted" at this notable wedding in high life. No one, who had not been previously informed of it, could ever have suspected that the lovely bride—at once so noble and modest, so dignified and graceful, so gentle and refined, yet with as lofty a bearing as a princess of the blood royal—had only a short time before been one of a band of strolling players, nightly fulfilling her duties as an actress. While de Sigognac, governor of a province, captain of mousquetaires, superbly dressed, dignified, stately and affable, the very beau-ideal of a distinguished young nobleman, had nothing about him to recall the poor, shabby, disconsolate youth, almost starving in his dreary, half-ruined chateau, whose misery was described at the beginning of this tale.
After a splendid collation, graced by the presence of the bride and groom, the happy pair vanished; but we will not attempt to follow them, or intrude upon their privacy—turning away at the very threshold of the nuptial chamber, singing, in low tones, after the fashion of the ancients, "Hymen! oh Hymen!"
The mysteries of such sacred happiness as theirs should be respected; and besides, sweet, modest Isabelle would have died of shame if so much as a single one of the pins that held her bodice were indiscreetly drawn out.
CHAPTER XXII. THE CASTLE OF HAPPINESS
It will be readily believed that our sweet Isabelle had not forgotten, in her exceeding happiness as Mme. la Baronne de Sigognac, her former companions of Herode's troupe. As she could not invite them to her wedding because they would have been so much out of place there—she had, in commemoration of that auspicious occasion, sent handsome and appropriate gifts to them all; offered with a grace so charming that it redoubled their value. So long as the company remained in Paris, she went often to see them play; applauding her old friends heartily, and judiciously as well, knowing just where the applause should be given. The young baronne did not attempt to conceal the fact that she had formerly been an actress herself—not parading it, but referring to it quietly, if necessary, as a matter of course; an excellent method to disarm ill-natured tongues, which would surely have wagged vigorously had any mystery been made about it. In addition, her illustrious birth and exalted position imposed silence upon those around her, and her sweet dignity and modesty had soon won all hearts—even those of her own sex—until it was universally conceded that there was not a greater or truer lady in court circles than the beautiful young Baronne de Sigognac.
The king, Louis XIII, having heard Isabelle's eventful history, praised her highly for her virtuous conduct, and evinced great interest in de Sigognac, whom he heartily commended for his respectful, honourable gallantry, under circumstances that, according to general opinion, would authorize all manner of license. His deference to defenceless virtue peculiarly pleased the chaste, reserved monarch, who had no sympathy with, or indulgence for the wild, unbridled excesses of the licentious youth of his capital and court. As to Vallombreuse, he had entirely changed and amended his way of life, and seemed to find unfailing pleasure and satisfaction, as well as benefit, in the companionship of his new friend and brother, to whom he was devoted, and who fully reciprocated his warm affection; while the prince, his father, joyfully dwelt in the bosom of his reunited family, and found in it the happiness he had vainly sought before. The young husband and wife led a charming life, more and more in love with and devoted to each other, and never experiencing that satiety of bliss which is ruinous to the most perfect happiness. Although Isabelle had no concealments from her husband, and shared even her inmost thoughts with him, yet for a time she seemed very much occupied with some mysterious business—apparently exclusively her own.
She had secret conferences with her steward, with an architect, and also with certain sculptors and painters—all without de Sigognac's knowledge, and by the connivance of Vallombreuse, who seemed to be her confidant, aider and abettor.
One fine morning, several months after their marriage, Isabelle said to de Sigognac, as if a sudden thought had struck her: "My dear lord, do you never think of your poor, deserted, old chateau? and have you no desire to return to the birthplace of our love?"
"I am not so unfeeling as that, my darling, and I have thought of it longingly many times of late. But I did not like to propose the journey to you without being sure that it would please you. I did not like to tear you away from the delights of the court—of which you are the chief ornament—and take you to that poor, old, half-ruined mansion, the haunt of rats and owls, where I could not hope to make you even comfortable, yet, which I prefer, miserable as it is, to the most luxurious palaces; for it was the home of my ancestors, and the place where I first saw you, my heart's delight!—spot ever sacred and dear to me, upon which I should like to erect an altar."
"And I," rejoined Isabelle, "often wonder whether the eglantine in the garden still blooms, as it did for me."
"It does," said de Sigognac, "I am sure of it—having once been blessed by your touch, it must be always blooming—even though there be none to see."
"Ah! my lord, unlike husbands in general, you are more gallant after marriage than before," Isabelle said, laughingly, yet deeply touched by his tender words, "and you pay your wife compliments as if she were your ladylove. And now, since I have ascertained that your wishes accord with my whim, will it please your lordship to set out for the Chateau de Sigognac this week? The weather is fine. The great heat of summer is over, and we can really enjoy the journey. Vallombreuse will go with us, and I shall take Chiquita. She will be glad to see her own country again."
The needful preparations were soon made, and the travelling party set off in high spirits. The journey was rapid and delightful. Relays of horses had been sent on in advance by Vallombreuse, so that in a few days they reached the point where the road leading to the Chateau de Sigognac branched off from the great post-road. It was about two o'clock of a bright, warm afternoon when the carriage turned off the highway, and as they got, at the same moment, their first view of the chateau, de Sigognac could not believe the testimony of his own eyes—he was bewildered, dazzled, overwhelmed—he no longer recognised the familiar details which had been so deeply impressed upon his memory. All was changed, as if by magic. The road, smooth, free from grass and weeds, and freshly gravelled, had no more ruts; the hedges, neatly trimmed and properly tended, no longer reached out long, straggling arms to catch the rare passer-by; the tall trees on either side had been carefully pruned, so that their branches met in an arch overhead, and framed in a most astonishing picture. Instead of the dreary ruin, slowly crumbling into dust, a fine new chateau rose before them—resembling the old one as a son resembles his father. It was an exact reproduction—nothing had been changed, only renewed—it was simply the ancient mansion rejuvenated. The walls were smooth and unbroken, the lofty towers intact, rising proudly at the four angles of the building, with their freshly gilded weathercocks gleaming in the sunlight. A handsome new roof, tastefully ornamented with a pretty design in different coloured slates, had replaced the broken, weather-stained tiles, through which the rain used to find its way down into the frescoed hall, and the long suite of deserted rooms. Every window had bright large panes of clear glass shining in its casement, and a magnificent great door, turning smoothly and noiselessly upon its huge hinges, had superseded the old, worm-eaten one, that used to groan and creak piteously when opened ever so little. Above it shone the de Sigognac arms—three golden storks upon an azure field, with this noble motto—entirely obliterated of old—"Alta petunt."
For a few moments de Sigognac gazed at it all in silence, overcome by astonishment and emotion. Then he suddenly turned to Isabelle, with joyful surprise written in every line of his speaking countenance, and seizing her hands passionately, and holding them firmly clasped in his, said: "It is to you, my kind, generous fairy, that I owe this marvellous transformation of my poor, dilapidated, old chateau. You have touched it with your wand and restored its ancient splendour, majesty and youth. I cannot tell you how enchanted, how gratified I am by this wonderful surprise. It is unspeakably charming and delightful, like everything that emanates from my good angel. Without a word or hint from me, you have divined, and carried out, the secret and most earnest wish of my heart."
"You must also thank a certain sorcerer, who has greatly aided me in all this," said Isabelle softly, touched by her husband's emotion and delight, and pointing to Vallombreuse, who was sitting opposite to her. The two young men clasped hands for a moment, and smiled at each other in friendly fashion. There was a perfect under standing between these kindred spirits now, and no words were needed on either side.
By this time the carriage had reached the chateau, where Pierre, in a fine new livery—and a tremor of delight—was waiting to receive them. After an affectionate, as well as respectful, greeting from the faithful old servant, they entered the grand portico, which had been, like all the rest, admirably restored, and, alighting from the carriage, paused a moment to admire its magnificent proportions ere they passed on into the frescoed hall, where eight or ten tall lackeys were drawn up in line, and bowed profoundly to their new master and mistress. Skilful artists had retouched the ancient frescoes, and made them glow with all their original brilliant tints. The colossal figures of Hercules were still supporting the heavy cornice, and the busts of the Roman emperors looked out majestically from their niches. Higher up, the vine climbing on its trellis was as luxuriant as in the olden time, and there were no unsightly stains on the bright blue sky of the vaulted roof to mar its beauty. A like metamorphosis had been worked everywhere—the worm-eaten woodwork had been renewed, the uneven floors relaid, the tarnished gilding restored to its original splendour—and the new furniture throughout had been made exactly like the old that it replaced. The fine old tapestry in de Sigognac's own room had been minutely copied, down to the smallest detail, and the hangings of the bed were of green and white brocade, in precisely the same delicate tint and graceful pattern as the old.
Isabelle, with her innate delicacy and perfect taste, had not aimed at producing a sensation, by any overwhelming magnificence or dazzling splendour in renovating the intrinsically fine old Chateau de Sigognac, but had simply wished to gratify and delight the heart of her husband, so tenderly loved, in giving back to him the impressions and surroundings of his childhood and youth, robbed of their misery and sadness. All was bright and gay now in this lordly mansion, erst so dreary and melancholy; even the sombre old family portraits, cleansed, retouched and revarnished by skilful hands, smiled down upon them, as if pleased with the new order of things; especially their own handsome, richly gilt frames.
After looking through the interior of the chateau, de Sigognac and Isabelle went out into the court, where no weeds or nettles were to be seen, no grass growing up between the paving stones, no heaps of rubbish in the corners, and through the clear glass panes of the numerous windows looking into it were visible the folds of the rich curtains in the chambers that were formerly the favourite haunt of owls and bats. They went on down into the garden, by a noble flight of broad stone steps, no longer tottering and moss-grown, and turned first to seek the wild eglantine which had offered its delicate little rose to the young actress, on the memorable morning when the baron had decided to go forth from his ruined castle for love of her. It had another dainty blossom ready for her now, which Isabelle received from de Sigognac's hand, with tears, that told of a happiness too deep for words, welling up into her eyes, and exchanged with her adored and adoring husband a long, fond look, that seemed to give to each a glimpse of heaven.
The gardeners had been busy too, and had converted the neglected wilderness we made acquaintance with long ago into a veritable little paradise. At the end of the well-ordered and exquisitely arranged garden, Pomona still stood in her cool grotto, restored to all the beauty of her youth, while a stream of pure, sparkling water poured from the lion's mouth, and fell with a musical murmur into the marble basin. Even in their best and most glorious days the garden and the chateau had never known greater beauty and luxury than now. The baron, ever more and more astonished and enchanted, as he rambled slowly through it all, like one in a delicious dream, kept Isabelle's arm pressed tenderly to his heart, and was not ashamed to let her see the tears that at last he could no longer restrain, and which came from a very full heart.
"Now," said Isabelle, "that we have seen everything here, we must go and inspect the different pieces of property we have been able to buy back, so as to reconstruct, as nearly as possible, the ancient barony of Sigognac. I will leave you for a few moments, to go and put on my riding habit; I shall not be long, for I learned to make changes of that sort very rapidly in my old profession, you know. Will you, meantime, go and select our horses, and order that they should be made ready?"
Vallombreuse accompanied de Sigognac to the stables, where they found ten splendid horses contentedly munching their oats in their oaken stalls. Everything was in perfect order, but ere the baron had time to admire and praise, as he wished to do, a loud whinnying that was almost deafening suddenly burst forth, as good old Bayard peremptorily claimed his attention. Isabelle had long ago sent orders to the chateau that the superannuated pony should always have the best place in the stable, and be tenderly cared for. His manger was full of ground oats, which he seemed to be enjoying with great gusto, and he evidently approved highly of the new regime. In his stall Miraut lay sleeping, but the sound of his master's voice aroused him, and he joyfully jumped up and came to lick his hand, and claim the accustomed caress. As to Beelzebub, though he had not yet made his appearance, it must not be attributed to a want of affection on his part, but rather to an excess of timidity. The poor old cat had been so unsettled and alarmed at the invasion of the quiet chateau by an army of noisy workmen, and all the confusion and changes that had followed, that he had fled from his usual haunts, and taken up his abode in a remote attic; where he lay in concealment, impatiently waiting for darkness to come, so that he might venture out to pay his respects to his beloved master.
The baron, after petting Bayard and Miraut until they were in ecstasies of delight, chose from among the horses a beautiful, spirited chestnut for himself, the duke selected a Spanish jennet, with proudly arched neck and flowing mane, which was worthy to carry an Infanta, and an exquisite white palfrey, whose skin shone like satin, was brought out for the baronne. In a few moments Isabelle came down, attired in a superb riding habit, which consisted of a dark blue velvet basque, richly braided with silver, over a long, ample skirt of silver-gray satin, and her broad hat of white felt, like a cavalier's, was trimmed with a floating, dark blue feather. Her beautiful hair was confined in the most coquettish little blue and silver net, and as she came forward, radiant with smiles, she was a vision of loveliness, that drew forth fervent exclamations of delight from her two devoted and adoring knights. The Baronne de Sigognac certainly was enchantingly beautiful in her rich equestrian costume, which displayed the perfection of her slender, well-rounded figure to the greatest advantage, and there was a high-bred, dainty look about her which bore silent witness to her illustrious origin. She was still the sweet, modest Isabelle of old, but she was also the daughter of a mighty prince, the sister of a proud young duke, and the honoured wife of a valiant gentleman, whose race had been noble since before the crusades. Vallombreuse, remarking it, could not forbear to say: "My dearest sister, how magnificent you look to-day! Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, was never more superb, or more triumphantly beautiful, than you are in this most becoming costume."
Isabelle smiled in reply, as she put her pretty little foot into de Sigognac's hand, and sprang lightly into her saddle.
Her husband and brother mounted also, and the little cavalcade set forth in high glee, making the vaulted portico ring with their merry laughter, as they rode through it. Just in front of the chateau they met the Marquis de Bruyeres, and several other gentlemen of the neighbourhood, coming to pay their respects. They wished to go back into the chateau and receive their guests properly, saying that they could ride out at any time, but the visitors would not listen to such a thing, and turning their horses' heads proposed to ride with them. The party, increased by six or eight cavaliers in gala dress—for the provincial lordlings had made themselves as fine as possible to do honour to their new neighbours—was really very imposing; a cortege worthy of a princess. They rode on between broad green fields, through woods and groves and highly cultivated farms, all of which had now been restored to the estate they had originally belonged to; and the grateful, adoring glances that the Baron de Sigognac found opportunity to bestow upon his lovely baronne, made her heart beat high with a happiness almost too perfect for this weary world of trials and sorrows.
As they were riding through a little pine wood, near the boundary line of the estate, the barking of hounds was heard, and presently the party met the beautiful Yolande de Foix, followed by her old uncle, and one or two attendant cavaliers. The road was very narrow, and there was scarcely room to pass, though each party endeavoured to make way for the other. Yolande's horse was prancing about restively, and the skirt of her long riding-habit brushed Isabelle's as she passed her. She was furiously angry, and sorely tempted to address some cutting words to the "Bohemienne" she had once so cruelly insulted; but Isabelle, who had a soul above such petty malice, and had long ago forgiven Yolande for her unprovoked insolence, felt how much her own triumph must wound the other's proud spirit, and with perfect dignity and grace bowed to Mlle. de Foix, who could not do less than respond by a slight inclination of her haughty head, though her heart was filled with rage, and she had much ado to control herself. The Baron de Sigognac, with a quiet, unembarrassed air, had bowed respectfully to the fair huntress, who looked eagerly, but in vain, into the eyes of her former adorer for a spark of the old flame that used to blaze up in them at sight of her. Angry and disappointed, she gave her horse a sharp cut with the whip, and swept away at a gallop.
"Now, by Venus and all the Loves," said Vallombreuse to the Marquis de Bruyeres, beside whom he was riding, "that girl is a beauty, but she looked deucedly savage and cross. How she did glare at my sister, eh! as if she wanted to stab her."
"When one has long been the acknowledged queen of a neighbourhood," the marquis replied, "it is not pleasant to be dethroned, you know, and every one must admit that Mme. la Baronne de Sigognac bears off the palm."
The gay cavalcade, after a long ride, returned to the chateau, to find a sumptuous repast awaiting them in the magnificent banqueting hall, where the poor young baron had once supped with the wandering comedians, upon their own provisions. What a transformation had been effected! now a superb service of silver, bearing the family arms, shone upon the fine damask that covered the table, in which also the three storks were apparent, while beautiful porcelain and dainty glass, lovely flowers and luscious fruits contributed to the attractions of the bountifully furnished board. Isabelle sat in the same place she had occupied on the eventful night that had changed the destiny of the young lord of the chateau, and she could not but think of, and live over, that widely different occasion, as did also the baron, and the married lovers exchanged furtive smiles and glances, in which tender memories and bright hopes were happily mingled.
Near one of the tall buffets stood a large, fine-looking man with a thick black beard, dressed in black velvet, and wearing a massive chain of silver round his neck, who kept a watchful eye upon the numerous lackeys waiting on the guests, and from time to time gave an order, with a most majestic air. Presiding over another buffet, on which were neatly arranged numerous wine-bottles of different forms and dimensions, was another elderly man, of short, corpulent figure, and with a jolly red face, who stepped about actively and lightly, despite his age and weight, dispensing the wine to the servants as it was needed. At first de Sigognac did not notice them, but chancing to glance in their direction, was astonished to recognise in the first the tragic Herode, and in the second the grotesque Blazius. Isabelle, seeing that her husband had become aware of their presence, whispered to him, that in order to provide for the old age of those two devoted and faithful friends she had thought it well to give them superior positions in their household; in which they would have only easy duties to perform, as they had to direct others in their work, not to do any themselves; and the baron heartily approved and commended what his sweet young wife, ever considerate for others, had been pleased to do.
Course succeeded to course, and bottle to bottle—there was much laughing and talking around the convivial board, and the host was exerting himself to do honour to the festive occasion, when he felt a head laid on his knee, and a tattoo vigorously played by a pair of paws on his leg that was well known to him of old. Miraut and Beelzebub, who had slipped into the room, and under the table, without being detected, thus announced their presence to their indulgent master. He did not repulse them, but managed, without attracting notice, to give them a share of everything on his plate, and was especially amused at the almost insatiable voracity of the old black cat—who had evidently been fasting in his hiding-place in the attic. He actually seemed to enjoy, like an epicure, the rich and dainty viands that had replaced the frugal fare of long ago, and ate so much that when the meal was over he could scarcely stand, and made his way with difficulty into his master's bed-chamber, where he curled himself up in a luxurious arm-chair and settled down comfortably for the night.
Vallombreuse kept pace with the Marquis de Bruyeres, and the other guests, in disposing of the choice wines, that did credit to the pedant's selection; but de Sigognac, who had not lost his temperate habits, only touched his lips to the edge of his wine-glass, and made a pretence of keeping them company. Isabelle, under pretext of fatigue, had withdrawn when the dessert was placed upon the table. She really was very tired, and sent at once for Chiquita, now promoted to the dignity of first lady's maid, to come and perform her nightly duties. The wild, untutored child had—under Isabelle's judicious, tender and careful training—developed into a quiet, industrious and very beautiful young girl. She still wore mourning for Agostino, and around her neck was the famous string of pearl beads—it was a sacred treasure to Chiquita, and she was never seen without it. She attended to her duties quickly and deftly—evidently taking great delight in waiting upon the mistress she adored—and kissed her hand passionately, as she never failed to do, when all was finished and she bade her good-night.
When, an hour later, de Sigognac entered the room in which he had spent so many weary, lonely nights—listening to the wind as it shrieked and moaned round the outside of the desolate chateau, and wailed along the corridors-feeling that life was a hard and bitter thing, and fancying that it would never bring anything but trials and misery to him—he saw, by the subdued light from the shaded lamp, the face to him most beautiful in all the world smiling lovingly to greet him from under the green and white silken curtains that hung round his own bed, where it lay resting upon the pillow he had so often kissed, and moistened with his tears. His eyes were moist now—but from excess of happiness, not sorrow—as he saw before him the blessed, blissful realization of his vision.
Towards morning Beelzebub, who had been excessively uneasy and restless all night, managed, with great difficulty, to clamber up on the bed, where he rubbed his nose against his master's hand—trying at the same time to purr in the old way, but failing lamentably. The baron woke instantly, and saw poor Beelzebub looking at him appealingly, with his great green eyes unnaturally dilated, and momentarily growing dim; he was trembling violently, and as his master's kind hand was stretched out to stroke his head, fell over on his side, and with one half-stifled cry, one convulsive shudder, breathed his last.
"Poor Beelzebub!" softly said Isabelle, who had been roused from her sweet slumber by his dying groan, "he has lived through all the misery of the old time, but will not be here to share and enjoy the prosperity of the new."
Beelzebub, it must be confessed, fell a victim to his own intemperance—a severe fit of indigestion, consequent upon the enormous supper he had eaten, was the cause of his death—his long-famished stomach was not accustomed to, nor proof against, such excesses. This death, even though it was only that of a dumb beast, touched de Sigognac deeply; for poor Beelzebub had been his faithful companion, night and day, through many long, weary years of sadness and poverty, and had always shown the warmest, most devoted affection for him. He carefully wrapped the body in a piece of fine, soft cloth, and waited, until evening should come, to bury it himself; when he would be safe from observation and possible ridicule. Accordingly, after nightfall, he took a spade, a lantern, and poor Beelzebub's body, which was stiff and stark by that time, and went down into the garden, where he set to work to dig the grave, under the sacred eglantine, in what seemed to him like hallowed ground. He wanted to make it deep enough to insure its not being disturbed by any roaming beast of prey, and worked away diligently, until his spade struck sharply against some hard substance, that he at first thought must be a large stone, or piece of rock perhaps. He attempted, in various ways, to dislodge it, but all in vain, and it gave out such a peculiar, hollow sound at every blow, that at last he threw down his spade and took the lantern to see what the strange obstacle might be.
He was greatly surprised at finding the corner of a stout oaken chest, strengthened with iron bands, much rusted, but still intact. He dug all round it, and then, using his spade as a lever, succeeded in raising it, though it was very heavy, to the edge of the hole, and sliding it out on the grass beside it; then he put poor Beelzebub into the place it had occupied, and filled up the grave. He carefully smoothed it over, replaced the sod, and when all was finished to his satisfaction, went in search of his faithful old Pierre, upon whose discretion and secrecy he knew that he could rely. Together they carried the mysterious strong box into the chateau, but not without great difficulty and frequent pauses to rest, because of its immense weight. Pierre broke open the chest with an axe, and the cover sprang back, disclosing to view a mass of gold coins—all ancient, and many of them foreign. Upon examination, a quantity of valuable jewelry, set with precious stones, was found mingled with the gold, and, under all, a piece of parchment, with a huge seal attached, bearing the three storks of the de Sigognacs, still in a good state of preservation; but the writing was almost entirely obliterated by dampness and mould. The signature, however, was still visible, and letter by letter the baron spelled it out—"Raymond de Sigognac." It was the name of one of his ancestors, who had gone to serve his king and country in the war then raging, and never returned; leaving the mystery of his death, or disappearance, unsolved. He had only one child, an infant son, and when he left home—in those troublous times—must have buried all his treasures for safety, and they had remained undiscovered until this late day. Doubtless, he had confided the secret of their whereabouts to some trusty friend or retainer, who, perhaps, had died suddenly before he could disclose it to the rightful heir. From the time of that Raymond began the decadence of the de Sigognacs, who, previous to that epoch, had always been wealthy and powerful.
Of course, the mystery about this treasure—so strangely brought to light—could never be cleared up now; but one thing was certain, beyond a question or a doubt, that the strong box and its contents belonged of right to the present Baron de Sigognac—the only living representative of the family. His first move was to seek his generous, devoted wife, so that he might show her the mysterious treasure he had found, and claim her sweet sympathy in his joy, which would be incomplete without it. After relating to her all the surprising incidents of the evening, he finished by saying, "Decidedly, Beelzebub was the good genius of the de Sigognacs—through his means I have become rich—and now that my blessed angel has come to me he has taken his departure; for there is nothing else left for him to do, since you, my love, have given me perfect happiness."