Isabelle, entirely revived, and no longer feeling at all faint, bad risen to her feet, and now stood between de Sigognac and the tyrant, adjusting, with a trembling hand, her disordered dress and dishevelled hair. Lampourde and Scapin had retired to a little distance from them, and held themselves modestly aloof, whilst the men within, still bound hand and foot, kept as quiet as possible; fearful of their fate if brought to the prince's notice. At length that aged nobleman returned, and breaking the terrible silence that had weighed upon all, said, in severe tones, "Let all those who placed their services at the disposition of the Duke of Vallombreuse, to aid him in indulging his evil passions and committing a terrible crime, quit this chateau instantly. I will refrain from placing you in the hands of the public executioner, though you richly deserve it. Go now! vanish! get ye back to your lairs! and rest assured that justice will not fail to overtake you at last."
These words were not complimentary, but the trembling offenders were thankful to get off so easily, and the ruffians, whom Lampourde and Scapin had unbound, followed Malartic down the stairs in silence, without daring to claim their promised reward. When they had disappeared, the prince advanced and took Isabelle by the hand, and gently detaching her from the group of which she had formed a part, led her over to where he had been standing, and kept her beside him.
"Stay here, mademoiselle," he said; "your place is henceforth by my side. It is the least that you can do to fulfil your duty as my daughter, since you are the innocent means of depriving me of my son." And he wiped away a tear, that, despite all his efforts to control his grief, rolled down his withered cheek. Then turning to de Sigognac, he said, with an incomparably noble gesture, "Sir, you are at liberty to withdraw, with your brave companions. Isabelle will have nothing to fear under her father's protection, and this chateau will be her home for the present. Now that her birth is made known it is not fitting that my daughter should return to Paris with you. I thank you, though it costs me the hope of perpetuating my race, for having spared my son a disgraceful action—what do I say? An abominable crime. I would rather have a bloodstain on my escutcheon than a dishonourable blot. Since Vallombreuse was infamous in his conduct, you have done well to kill him. You have acted like a true gentleman, which I am assured that you are, in chivalrously protecting weakness, innocence and virtue. You are nobly in the right. That my daughter's honour has been preserved unstained, I owe to you—and it compensates me for the loss of my son—at least my reason tells me that it should do so; but the father's heart rebels, and unjust ideas of revenge might arise, which I should find it difficult to conquer and set at rest. Therefore you had better go your way now, and whatever the result may be I will not pursue or molest you. I will try to forget that a terrible necessity turned your sword against my son's life."
"My lord," said de Sigognac, with profound respect, "I feel so keenly for your grief as a father, that I would have accepted any reproaches, no matter how bitter and unjust, from you, without one word of protest or feeling of resentment; even though I cannot reproach myself for my share in this disastrous conflict. I do not wish to say anything to justify myself in your eyes, at the expense of the unhappy Duke of Vallombreuse, but I beg you to believe that this quarrel was not of my seeking. He persistently threw himself in my way, and I have done everything I could to spare him, in more than one encounter. Even here it was his own blind fury that led to his being wounded. I leave Isabelle, who is dearer to me than my own soul, in your hands, and shall grieve my whole life long for this sad victory; which is a veritable and terrible defeat for me, since it destroys my happiness. Ah! if only I could have been slain myself, instead of your unhappy son; it would have been better and happier for me."
He bowed with grave dignity to the prince, who courteously returned his salute, exchanged a long look, eloquent of passionate love and heart-breaking regret, with Isabelle, and went sadly down the grand staircase, followed by his companions—not however without glancing back more than once at the sweet girl he was leaving—who to save herself from falling, leaned heavily against the railing of the landing, sobbing as if her heart would break, and pressing a handkerchief to her streaming eyes. And, so strange a thing is the human heart, the Baron de Sigognac departed much comforted by the bitter grief and tears of her whom he so devotedly loved and worshipped. He and his friends went on foot to the little wood where they had left their horses tied to the trees, found them undisturbed, mounted and returned to Paris.
"What do you think, my lord, of all these wonderful events?" said the tyrant, after a long silence, to de Sigognac, beside whom he was riding. "It all ends up like a regular tragi-comedy. Who would ever have dreamed, in the midst of the melee, of the sudden entrance upon the scene of the grand old princely father, preceded by torches, and coming to put a little wholesome restraint on the too atrociously outrageous pranks of his dissolute young son? And then the recognition of Isabelle as his daughter, by means of the ring with a peculiar device of his own engraved upon it; haven't you seen exactly the same sort of thing on the stage? But, after all, it is not so surprising perhaps as it seems at the first glance—since the theatre is only a copy of real life. Therefore, real life should resemble it, just as the original does the portrait, eh? I have always heard that our sweet little actress was of noble birth. Blazius and old Mme. Leonarde remember seeing the prince when he was devoted to Cornelia. The duenna has often tried to persuade Isabelle to seek out her father, but she is of too modest and gentle a nature to take a step of that kind; not wishing to intrude upon a family that might reject her, and willing to content herself in her own lowly, position."
"Yes, I knew all about that," rejoined de Sigognac, "for Isabelle told me some time ago her mother's history, and spoke of the ring; but without attaching any importance to the fact of her illustrious origin. It is very evident, however, from the nobility and delicacy of her nature, without any other proof, that princely blood flows in her veins; and also the refined, pure, elevated type of her beauty testifies to her descent. But what a terrible fatality that this cursed Vallombreuse should turn out to be her brother! There is a dead body between us now—a stream of blood separates us—and yet, I could not save her honour in any other way. Unhappy mortal that I am! I have myself created the obstacle upon which my love is wrecked, and killed my hopes of future bliss with the very sword that defended the purity of the woman I adore. In guarding her I love, I have put her away from me forever. How could I go now and present myself to Isabelle with blood-stained hands? Alas! that the blood which I was forced to shed in her defence should have been her brother's. Even if she, in her heavenly goodness, could forgive me, and look upon me without a feeling of horror, the prince, her father, would repulse and curse me as the murderer of his only son. I was born, alas! under an unlucky star."
"Yes, it is all very sad and lamentable, certainly," said the tyrant; "but worse entanglements than this have come out all right in the end. You must remember that the Duke of Vallombreuse is only half-brother to Isabelle, and that they were aware of the relationship but for a few minutes before he fell dead at our feet; which must make a great difference in her feelings. And besides, she hated that overbearing nobleman, who pursued her so cruelly with his violent and scandalous gallantries. The prince himself was far from being satisfied with his wretched son—who was ferocious as Nero, dissolute as Heliogabalus, and perverse as Satan himself, and who would have been hanged ten times over if he had not been a duke. Do not be so disheartened! things may turn out a great deal better than you think now."
"God grant it, my good Herode," said de Sigognac fervently. "But naturally I cannot feel happy about it. It would have been far better for all if I had been killed instead of the duke, since Isabelle would have been safe from his criminal pursuit under her father's care. And then, I may as well tell you all, a secret horror froze the very marrow in my bones when I saw that handsome young man, but a moment before so full of life, fire, and passion, fall lifeless, pale and stiff at my feet. Herode, the death of a man is a grave thing, and though I cannot suffer from remorse for this one, since I have committed no crime, still, all the time I see Vallombreuse before me, lying, motionless and ghastly, with the blood oozing slowly from his wound. It haunts me. I cannot drive the horrid sight away."
"That is all wrong," said the tyrant, soothingly—for the other was much excited—"for you could not have done otherwise. Your conscience should not reproach you. You have acted throughout, from the very beginning to the end, like the noble gentleman that you are. These scruples are owing to exhaustion, to the feverishness due to the excitement you have gone through, and the chill from the night air. We will gallop on swiftly in a moment, to set our blood flowing more freely, and drive away these sad thoughts of yours. But one thing must be promptly done; you must quit Paris, forthwith, and retire for a time to some quiet retreat, until all this trouble is forgotten. The violent death of the Duke of Vallombreuse will make a stir at the court, and in the city, no matter how much pains may be taken to keep the facts from the public, and, although he was not at all popular, indeed very much the reverse, there will be much regret expressed, and you will probably be severely blamed. But now let us put spurs to these lazy steeds of ours, and try to get on a little faster."
While they are galloping towards Paris, we will return to the chateau—as quiet now as it had been noisy a little while before. In the young duke's room, a candelabrum, with several branches, stood on a round table, so that the light from the candles fell upon the bed, where he lay with closed eyes, as motionless as a corpse, and as pale. The walls of the large chamber, above a high wainscot of ebony picked out with gold, were hung with superb tapestry, representing the history of Medea and Jason, with all its murderous and revolting details. Here, Medea was seen cutting the body of Pelias into pieces, under pretext of restoring his youth—there, the madly jealous woman and unnatural mother was murdering her own children; in another panel she was fleeing, surfeited with vengeance, in her chariot, drawn by huge dragons breathing out flames of fire. The tapestry was certainly magnificent in quality and workmanship, rich in colouring, artistic in design, and very costly—but inexpressibly repulsive. These mythological horrors gave the luxurious room an intensely disagreeable, lugubrious aspect, and testified to the natural ferocity and cruelty of the person who had selected them. Behind the bed the crimson silk curtains had been drawn apart, exposing to view the representation of Jason's terrible conflict with the fierce, brazen bulls that guarded the golden fleece, and Vallombreuse, lying senseless below them, looked as if he might have been one of their victims. Various suits of clothes, of the greatest richness and elegance, which had been successively tried on and rejected, were scattered about, and in a splendid great Japanese vase, standing on an ebony table near the head of the bed, was a bouquet of beautiful flowers, destined to replace the one Isabelle had already refused to receive—its glowing tints making a strange contrast with the death-like face, which was whiter than the snowy pillow it rested on. The prince, sitting in an arm-chair beside the bed, gazed at his unconscious son with mournful intentness, and bent down from time to time to listen at the slightly parted lips; but no fluttering breath came through them; all was still. Never had the young duke looked handsomer. The haughty, fierce expression, habitual with him, had given place to a serenity that was wonderfully beautiful, though so like death. As the father contemplated the perfect face and form, so soon to crumble into dust, he forgot, in his overwhelming grief, that the soul of a demon had animated it, and he thought sorrowfully of the great name that had been revered and honoured for centuries past, but which could not go down to centuries to come. More even than the death of his son did he mourn for the extinction of his home.
Isabelle stood at the foot of the bed, with clasped hands, praying with her whole soul for this new-found brother, who had expiated his crime with his life—the crime of loving too much, which woman pardons so easily.
The prince, who had been for some time holding his son's icy cold hand between both his own, suddenly thought that he could feel a slight warmth in it, and not realizing that he himself had imparted it, allowed himself to hope again.
"Will the doctor never come?" he cried impatiently; "something may yet be done; I am persuaded of it."
Even as he spoke the door opened, and the surgeon appeared, followed by an assistant carrying a case of instruments. He bowed to the prince, and without saying one word went straight to the bedside, felt the patient's pulse, put his hand over his heart, and shook his head despondingly. However, to make sure, he drew a little mirror of polished steel from his pocket, removed it from its case, and held it for a moment over the parted lips; then, upon examining its surface closely, he found that a slight dimness was visible upon it. Surprised at this unexpected indication of life, he repeated the experiment, and again the little mirror was dimmed—Isabelle and the prince meantime breathlessly watching every movement, and even the expression of the doctor's face.
"Life is not entirely extinct," he said at last, turning to the anxious father, as he wiped the polished surface of his tiny mirror. "The patient still breathes, and as long as there is life there is hope, But do not give yourself up to a premature joy that might render your grief more bitter afterwards. I only say that the Duke of Vallombreuse has not yet breathed his last; that is all. Now, I am going to probe the wound, which perhaps is not fatal, as it did not kill him at once."
"You must not stay here, Isabelle," said the prince, tenderly; "such sights are too trying for a young girl like you. Go to your own room now, my dear, and I will let you know the doctor's verdict as soon as he has pronounced it."
Isabelle accordingly withdrew, and was conducted to an apartment that had been made ready for her; the one she had occupied being all in disorder after the terrible scenes that had been enacted there.
The surgeon proceeded with his examination, and when it was finished said to the prince, "My lord, will you please to order a cot put up in that corner yonder, and have a light supper sent in for my assistant and myself? We shall remain for the night with the Duke of Vallombreuse, and take turns in watching him. I must be with him constantly, so as to note every symptom; to combat promptly those that are unfavorable, and aid those that are the reverse. Your highness may trust everything to me, and feel assured that all that human skill and science can do towards saving your son's life shall be faithfully done. Let me advise you to go to your own room now and try to get some rest; I think I may safely answer for my patient's life until the morning."
A little calmed and much encouraged by this assurance, the prince retired to his own apartment, where every hour a servant brought him a bulletin from the sick-room.
As to Isabelle, lying in her luxurious bed and vainly trying to sleep, she lived over again in imagination all the wonderful as well as terrible experiences of the last two days, and tried to realize her new position; that she was now the acknowledged daughter of a mighty prince, than whom only royalty was higher; that the dreaded Duke of Vallombreuse, so handsome and winning despite his perversity, was no longer a bold lover to be feared and detested, but a brother, whose passion, if he lived, would doubtless be changed into a pure and calm fraternal affection. This chateau, no longer her prison, had become her home, and she was treated by all with the respect and consideration due to the daughter of its master. From what had seemed to be her ruin had arisen her good fortune, and a destiny radiant, unhoped-for, and beyond her wildest flights of fancy. Yet, surrounded as she was by everything to make her happy and content, Isabelle was far from feeling so—she was astonished at herself for being sad and listless, instead of joyous and exultant—but the thought of de Sigognac, so infinitely dear to her, so far more precious than any other earthly blessing, weighed upon her heart, and the separation from him was a sorrow for which nothing could console her. Yet, now that their relative positions were so changed, might not a great happiness be in store for her? Did not this very change bring her nearer in reality to that true, brave, faithful, and devoted lover, though for the moment they were parted? As a poor nameless actress she had refused to accept his offered hand, lest such an alliance should be disadvantageous to him and stand in the way of his advancement, but now—how joyfully would she give herself to him. The daughter of a great and powerful prince would be a fitting wife for the Baron de Sigognac. But if he were the murderer of her father's only son; ah! then indeed they could never join hands over a grave. And even if the young duke should recover, he might cherish a lasting resentment for the man who had not only dared to oppose his wishes and designs, but had also defeated and wounded him. As to the prince, good and generous though he was, still he might not be able to bring himself to look with favour upon the man who had almost deprived him of his son. Then, too, he might desire some other alliance for his new-found daughter—it was not impossible—but in her inmost heart she promised herself to be faithful to her first and only love; to take refuge in a convent rather than accept the hand of any other; even though that other were as handsome as Apollo, and gifted as the prince of a fairy tale. Comforted by this secret vow, by which she dedicated her life and love to de Sigognac, whether their destiny should give them to each other or keep them asunder, Isabelle was just falling into a sweet sleep when a slight sound made her open her eyes, and they fell upon Chiquita, standing at the foot of the bed and gazing at her with a thoughtful, melancholy air.
"What is it, my dear child?" said Isabelle, in her sweetest tones. "You did not go away with the others, then? I am glad; and if you would like to stay here with me, Chiquita, I will keep you and care for you tenderly; as is justly due to you, my dear, for you have done a great deal for me."
"I love you dearly," answered Chiquita, "but I cannot stay with you while Agostino lives; he is my master, I must follow him. But I have one favour to beg before I leave you; if you think that I have earned the pearl necklace now, will you kiss me? No one ever did but you, and it was so sweet."
"Indeed I will, and with all my heart," said Isabelle, taking the child's thin face between her hands and kissing her warmly on her brown cheeks, which flushed crimson under the soft caress.
"And now, good-bye!" said Chiquita, when after a few moments of silence she had resumed her usual sang-froid. She turned quickly away, but, catching sight of the knife she had given Isabelle, which lay upon the dressing-table, she seized it eagerly, saying, "Give me back my knife now; you will not need it any more," and vanished.
CHAPTER XVIII. A FAMILY PARTY
The next morning found the young Duke of Vallombreuse still living, though his life hung by so slender a thread, that the surgeon, who anxiously watched his every breath, feared from moment to moment that it might break. He was a learned and skilful man, this same Maitre Laurent, who only needed some favourable opportunity to bring him into notice and make him as celebrated as he deserved to be. His remarkable talents and skill had only been exercised thus far "in anima vili," among the lower orders of society—whose living or dying was a matter of no moment whatever. But now had come at last the chance so long sighed for in secret, and he felt that the recovery of his illustrious patient was of paramount importance to himself. The worthy doctor's amour propre and ambition were both actively engaged in this desperate duel he was fighting with Death, and he set his teeth and determined that the victory must rest with him. In order to keep the whole glory of the triumph for himself, he had persuaded the prince—not without difficulty—to renounce his intention of sending for the most celebrated surgeons in Paris, assuring him that he himself was perfectly capable to do all that could be done, and pleading that nothing was more dangerous than a change of treatment in such a case as this. Maitre Laurent conquered, and feeling that there was now no danger of his being pushed into the background, threw his whole heart and strength into the struggle; yet many times during that anxious night he feared that his patient's life was slipping away from his detaining grasp, and almost repented him of having assumed the entire responsibility. But with the morning came encouragement, and as the watchful surgeon stood at the bedside, intently gazing upon the ghastly face on the pillow, he murmured to himself:
"No, he will not die—his countenance has lost that terrible, hippocratic look that had settled upon it last evening when I first saw him—his pulse is stronger, his breathing free and natural. Besides, he MUST live—his recovery will make my fortune. I must and will tear him out of the grim clutches of Death—fine, handsome, young fellow that he is, and the heir and hope of his noble family—it will be long ere his tomb need be made ready to receive him. He will help me to get away from this wretched little village, where I vegetate ignobly, and eat my heart out day by day. Now for a bold stroke!—at the risk of producing fever—at all risks—I shall venture to give him a dose of that wonder-working potion of mine." Opening his case of medicines, he took out several small vials, containing different preparations—some red as a ruby, others green as an emerald—this one yellow as virgin gold, that bright and colourless as a diamond—and on each one a small label bearing a Latin inscription. Maitre Laurent, though he was perfectly sure of himself, carefully read the inscriptions upon those he had selected several times over, held up the tiny vials one after another, where a ray of sunshine struck upon them, and looked admiringly through the bright transparent liquids they contained—then, measuring with the utmost care a few drops from each, compounded a potion after a secret recipe of his own; which he made a mystery of, and refused to impart to his fellow practitioners. Rousing his sleeping assistant, he ordered him to raise the patient's head a little, while, with a small spatula, he pried the firmly set teeth apart sufficiently to allow the liquid he had prepared to trickle slowly into the mouth. As it reached the throat there was a spasmodic contraction that gave Maitre Laurent an instant of intense anxiety—but it was only momentary, and the remainder of the dose was swallowed easily and with almost instantaneous effect. A slight tinge of colour showed itself in the pallid cheeks, the eyelids trembled and half unclosed, and the hand that had lain inert and motionless upon the counterpane stirred a little. Then the young duke heaved a deep sigh, and opening his eyes looked vacantly in about him, like one awakening from a dream, or returning from those mysterious regions whither the soul takes flight when unconsciousness holds this mortal frame enthralled. Only a glance, and the long eyelashes fell again upon the pale cheeks—but a wonderful change had passed over the countenance.
"I staked everything on that move," said Maitre Laurent to himself, with a long breath of relief, "and I have won. It was either kill or cure—and it has not killed him. All glory be to Aesculapius, Hygeia, and Hippocrates!"
At this moment a hand noiselessly put aside the hangings over the door, and the venerable head of the prince appeared—looking ten years older for the agony and dread of the terrible night just passed.
"How is he, Maitre Laurent?" he breathed, in broken, scarcely audible tones.
The surgeon put his finger to his lips, and with the other hand pointed to the young duke's face-still raised a little on the pillows, and no longer wearing its death-like look; then, with the light step habitual with those who are much about the sick, he went over to the prince, still standing on the threshold, and drawing him gently outside and away from the door, said in a low voice, "Your highness can see that the patient's condition, so far from growing worse, has decidedly improved. Certainly he is not out of danger yet—his state is very critical—but unless some new and totally unforeseen complication should arise, which I shall use every effort to prevent, I think that we can pull him through, and that he will be able to enjoy life again as if he had never been hurt."
The prince's care-worn face brightened and his fine eyes flashed at these hopeful words; he stepped forward to enter the sick-room, but Maitre Laurent respectfully opposed his doing so.
"Permit me, my lord, to prevent your approaching your son's bedside just now—doctors are often very disagreeable, you know, and have to impose trying conditions upon those to whom their patients are dear. I beseech you not to go near the Duke of Vallombreuse at present. Your beloved presence might, in the excessively weak and exhausted condition of my patient, cause dangerous agitation. Any strong emotion would be instantly fatal to him, his hold upon life is still so slight. Perfect tranquility is his only safety. If all goes well—as I trust and believe that it will—in a few days he will have regained his strength in a measure, his wound will be healing, and you can probably be with him as much as you like, without any fear of doing him harm. I know that this is very trying to your highness, but, believe me, it is necessary to your son's well-being."
The prince, very much relieved, and yielding readily to the doctor's wishes, returned to his own apartment; where he occupied himself with some religious reading until noon, when the major-domo came to announce that dinner was on the table.
"Go and tell my daughter, the Comtesse Isabelle de Lineuil—such is the title by which she is to be addressed henceforth—that I request her to join me at dinner," said the prince to the major-domo, who hastened off to obey this order.
Isabelle went quickly down the grand staircase with a light step, and smiled to herself as she passed through the noble hall where she had been so frightened by the two figures in armour, on the occasion of her bold exploring expedition the first night after her arrival at the chateau. Everything looked very different now—the bright sunshine was pouring in at the windows, and large fires of juniper, and other sweet-smelling woods, had completely done away with the damp, chilly, heavy atmosphere that pervaded the long disused rooms when she was in them before.
In the splendid dining-room she found a table sumptuously spread, and her father already seated at it, in his large, high-backed, richly carved chair, behind which stood two lackeys, in superb liveries. As she approached him she made a most graceful curtsey, which had nothing in the least theatrical about it, and would have met with approbation even in courtly circles. A servant was holding the chair destined for her, and with some timidity, but no apparent embarrassment, she took her seat opposite to the prince. She was served with soup and wine, and then with course after course of delicate, tempting viands; but she could not eat her heart was too full—her nerves were still quivering, from the terror and excitement of the preceding day and night.
She was dazzled and agitated by this sudden change of fortune, anxious about her brother, now lying at the point of death, and, above all, troubled and grieved at her separation from her lover—so she could only make a pretence of dining, and played languidly with the food on her plate.
"You are eating nothing, my dear comtesse," said the prince, who had been furtively watching her; "I pray you try to do better with this bit of partridge I am sending you."
At this title of comtesse, spoken as a matter of course, and in such a kind, tender tone, Isabelle looked up at the prince with astonishment written in her beautiful, deep blue eyes, which seemed to plead timidly for an explanation.
"Yes, Comtesse de Lineuil; it is the title which goes with an estate I have settled on you, my dear child, and which has long been destined for you. The name of Isabelle alone, charming though it be, is not suitable for my daughter."
Isabelle, yielding to the impulse of the moment—as the servants had retired and she was alone with her father—rose, and going to his side, knelt down and kissed his hand, in token of gratitude for his delicacy and generosity.
"Rise, my child," said he, very tenderly, and much moved, "and return to your place. What I have done is only just. It calls for no thanks. I should have done it long ago if it had been in my power. In the terrible circumstances that have reunited us, my dear daughter, I can see the finger of Providence, and through them I have learned your worth. To your virtue alone it is due that a horrible crime was not committed, and I love and honour you for it; even though it may cost me the loss of my only son. But God will be merciful and preserve his life, so that he may repent of having so persecuted and outraged the purest innocence. Maitre Laurent, in whom I have every confidence, gives me some hope this morning; and when I looked at Vallombreuse—from the threshold of his room only—I could see that the seal of death was no longer upon his face."
They were interrupted by the servants, bringing in water to wash their fingers, in a magnificent golden bowl, and this ceremony having been duly gone through with, the prince threw down his napkin and led the way into the adjoining salon, signing to Isabelle to follow him. He seated himself in a large arm-chair in front of the blazing wood fire, and bidding Isabelle place herself close beside him, took her hand tenderly between both of his, and looked long and searchingly at this lovely young daughter, so strangely restored to him. There was much of sadness mingled with the joy that shone in his eyes, for he was still very anxious about his son, whose life was in such jeopardy; but as he gazed upon Isabelle's sweet face the joy predominated, and he smiled very lovingly upon the new comtesse, as he began to talk to her of long past days.
"Doubtless, my beloved child, in the midst of the strange events that have brought us together, in such an odd, romantic, almost supernatural manner, the thought has suggested itself to your mind, that during all the years that have passed since your infancy I have not sought you out, and that chance alone has at last restored the long-lost child to her neglectful father. But you are so good and noble that I know you would not dwell upon such an idea, and I hope that you do not so misjudge me as to think me capable of such culpable neglect, now that you are getting a little better acquainted with me. As you must know, your mother, Cornelia, was excessively proud and high-spirited. She resented every affront, whether intended as such or not, with extraordinary violence, and when I was obliged, in spite of my most heartfelt wishes, to separate myself from her, and reluctantly submit to a marriage that I could not avoid, she obstinately refused to allow me to provide for her maintenance in comfort and luxury, as well as for you and your education. All that I gave her, and settled on her, she sent back to me with the most exaggerated disdain, and inexorably refused to receive again. I could not but admire, though I so deplored, her lofty spirit, and proud rejection of every benefit which I desired to confer upon her, and I left in the hands of a trusty agent, for her, the deeds of all the landed property and houses I had destined for her, as well as the money and jewels—so that she could at any time reclaim them, if she would—hoping that she might see fit to change her mind when the first flush of anger was over. But, to my great chagrin, she persisted in her refusal of everything, and changing her name, fled from Paris into the provinces; where she was said to have joined a roving band of comedians. Soon after that I was sent by my sovereign on several foreign missions that kept me long away from France, and I lost all trace of her and you. In vain were all my efforts to find you both, until at last I heard that she was dead. Then I redoubled my diligence in the search for my little motherless daughter, whom I had so tenderly loved; but all in vain. No trace of her could I find. I heard, indeed, of many children among these strolling companies, and carefully investigated each case that came to my knowledge; but it always ended in disappointment. Several women, indeed, tried to palm off their little girls upon me as my child, and I had to be on my guard against fraud; but I never failed to sift the matter thoroughly, even though I knew that deceit was intended, lest I should unawares reject the dear little one I was so anxiously seeking. At last I was almost forced to conclude that you too had perished; yet a secret intuition always told me that you were still in the land of the living. I used to sit for hours and think of how sweet and lovely you were in infancy; how your little rosy fingers used to play with and pull my long mustache—which was black then, my dear—when I leaned over to kiss you in your cradle—recalling all your pretty, engaging little baby tricks, remembering how fond and proud I was of you, and grieving over the loss that I seemed to feel more and more acutely as the years went on. The birth of my son only made me long still more intensely for you, instead of consoling me for your loss, or banishing you from my memory, and when I saw him decked with rich laces and ribbons, like a royal babe, and playing with his jewelled rattle, I would think with an aching heart that perhaps at that very moment my dear little daughter was suffering from cold and hunger, or the unkind treatment of those who had her in charge. Then I regretted deeply that I had not taken you away from your mother in the very beginning, and had you brought up as my daughter should be—but when you were born I did not dream of our parting. As years rolled on new anxieties tortured me. I knew that you would be beautiful, and how much you would have to suffer from the dissolute men who hover about all young and pretty actresses—my blood would boil as I thought of the insults and affronts to which you might be subjected, and from which I was powerless to shield you—no words can tell what I suffered. Affecting a taste for the theatre that I did not possess, I never let an opportunity pass to see every company of players that I could hear of—hoping to find you at last among them. But although I saw numberless young actresses, about your age, not one of them could have been you, my dear child—of that I was sure. So at last I abandoned the hope of finding my long-lost daughter, though it was a bitter trial to feel that I must do so. The princess, my wife, had died three years after our marriage, leaving me only one child—Vallombreuse—whose ungovernable disposition has always given me much trouble and anxiety. A few days ago, at Saint Germain, I heard some of the courtiers speak in terms of high praise of Herode's troupe, and what they said made me determine to go and see one of their representations without delay, while my heart beat high with a new hope—for they especially lauded a young actress, called Isabelle; whose graceful, modest, high-bred air they declared to be irresistible, and her acting everything that could be desired—adding that she was as virtuous as she was beautiful, and that the boldest libertines respected her immaculate purity. Deeply agitated by a secret presentiment, I hastened back to Paris, and went to the theatre that very night. There I saw you, my darling, and though it would seem to be impossible for even a father's eye to recognise, in the beautiful young woman of twenty, the babe that he had kissed in its cradle, and had never beheld since, still I knew you instantly—the very moment you came in sight—and I perceived, with a heart swelling with happiness and thankfulness, that you were all that I could wish. Moreover, I recognised the face of an old actor, who had been I knew in the troupe that Cornelia joined when she fled from Paris, and I resolved to address myself first to him; so as not to startle you by too abrupt a disclosure of my claims upon you. But when I sent the next morning to the hotel in the Rue Dauphine, I learned that Herode's troupe had just gone to give a representation at a chateau in the environs of Paris, and would be absent three days. I should have endeavoured to wait patiently for their return, had not a brave fellow, who used to be in my service, and has my interest at heart, come to inform me that the Duke of Vallombreuse, being madly in love with a young actress named Isabelle, who resisted his suit with the utmost firmness and determination, had arranged to gain forcible possession of her in the course of the day's journey—the expedition into the country being gotten up for that express purpose—that he had a band of hired ruffians engaged to carry out his nefarious purpose and bring his unhappy victim to this chateau—and that he had come to warn me, fearing lest serious consequences should ensue to my son, as the young actress would be accompanied by brave and faithful friends, who were armed, and would defend her to the death. This terrible news threw me into a frightful state of anxiety and excitement. Feeling sure, as I did, that you were my own daughter, I shuddered at the thought of the horrible crime that I might not be in time to prevent, and without one moment's delay set out for this place—suffering such agony by the way as I do not like even to think of. You were already delivered from danger when I arrived, as you know, and without having suffered anything beyond the alarm and dread—which must have been terrible indeed, my poor child! And then, the amethyst ring on your finger confirmed, past any possibility of doubt, what my heart had told me, when first my eyes beheld you in the theatre."
"I pray you to believe, dear lord and father," answered Isabelle, "that I have never accused you of anything, nor considered myself neglected. Accustomed from my infancy to the roving life of the troupe I was with, I neither knew nor dreamed of any other. The little knowledge that I had of the world made me realize that I should be wrong in wishing to force myself upon an illustrious family, obliged doubtless by powerful reasons, of which I knew nothing, to leave me in obscurity. The confused remembrance I had of my origin sometimes inspired me—when I was very young—with a certain pride, and I would say to myself, when I noticed the disdainful air with which great ladies looked down upon us poor actresses, I also am of noble birth. But I outgrew those fancies, and only preserved an invincible self-respect, which I have always cherished. Nothing in the world would have induced me to dishonour the illustrious blood that flows in my veins. The disgraceful license of the coulisses, and the loathsome gallantries lavished upon all actresses, even those who are not comely, disgusted me from the first, and I have lived in the theatre almost as if in a convent. The good old pedant has been like a watchful father to me, and as for Herode, he would have severely chastised any one who dared to touch me with the tip of his finger, or even to pronounce a vulgar word in my presence. Although they are only obscure actors, they are very honourable, worthy men, and I trust you will be good enough to help them if they ever find themselves in need of assistance. I owe it partly to them that I can lift my forehead for your kiss without a blush of shame, and proudly declare myself worthy, so far as purity is concerned, to be your daughter. My only regret is to have been the innocent cause of the misfortune that has overtaken the duke, your son. I could have wished to enter your family, my dear father, under more favourable auspices."
"You have nothing to reproach yourself with, my sweet child, for you could not divine these mysteries, which have been suddenly disclosed by a combination of circumstances that would be considered romantic and improbable, even in a novel; and my joy at finding you as worthy in every way to be my beloved and honoured daughter, as if you had not lived amid all the dangers of such a career, makes up for the pain and anxiety caused by the illness and danger of my son. Whether he lives or dies, I shall never for one moment blame you for anything in connection with his misfortune. In any event, it was your virtue and courage that saved him from being guilty of a crime that I shudder to contemplate. And now, tell me, who was the handsome young man among your liberators who seemed to direct the attack, and who wounded Vallombreuse? An actor doubtless, though it appeared to me that he had a very noble bearing, and magnificent courage."
"Yes, my dear father," Isabelle replied, with a most lovely and becoming blush, "he is an actor, a member of our troupe; but if I may venture to betray his secret, which is already known to the Duke of Vallombreuse, I will tell you that the so-called Captain Fracasse conceals under his mask a noble countenance, as indeed you already know, and under his theatrical pseudonym, the name of an illustrious family."
"True!" rejoined the prince, "I have heard something about that already. It would certainly have been astonishing if an ordinary, low-born actor had ventured upon so bold and rash a course as running counter to a Duke of Vallombreuse, and actually entering into a combat with him; it needs noble blood for such daring acts. Only a gentleman can conquer a gentleman, just as a diamond can only be cut by a diamond."
The lofty pride of the aged prince found much consolation in the knowledge that his son had not been attacked and wounded by an adversary of low origin; there was nothing compromising in a duel between equals, and he drew a deep breath of relief at thought of it.
"And pray, what is the real name of this valiant champion?" smilingly asked the prince, with a roguish twinkle in his dark eyes—"this dauntless knight, and brave defender of innocence and purity!"
"He is the Baron de Sigognac," Isabelle replied blushingly, with a slight trembling perceptible in her sweet, low voice. "I reveal his name fearlessly to you, my dear father, for you are both too just and too generous to visit upon his head the disastrous consequences of a victory that he deplores."
"De Sigognac?" said the prince. "I thought that ancient and illustrious family was extinct. Is he not from Gascony?"
"Yes; his home is in the neighbourhood of Dax."
"Exactly—and the de Sigognacs have an appropriate coat of arms—three golden storks on an azure field. Yes, it is as I said, an ancient and illustrious family—one of the oldest and most honourable in France. Paramede de Sigognac figured gloriously in the first crusade. A Raimbaud de Sigognac, the father of this young man without doubt, was the devoted friend and companion of Henri IV, in his youth, but was not often seen at court in later years. It was said that he was embarrassed financially, I remember."
"So much so, that when our troupe sought refuge of a stormy night under his roof, we found his son living in a half ruined chateau, haunted by bats and owls, where his youth was passing in sadness and misery. We persuaded him to come away with us, fearing that he would die there of starvation and melancholy—but I never saw misfortune so bravely borne."
"Poverty is no disgrace," said the prince, "and any noble house that has preserved its honour unstained may rise again from its ruins to its ancient height of glory and renown. But why did not the young baron apply to some of his father's old friends in his distress? or lay his case before the king, who is the natural refuge of all loyal gentlemen under such circumstances?"
"Misfortunes such as his are apt to breed timidity, even with the bravest," Isabelle replied, "and pride deters many a man from betraying his misery to the world. When the Baron de Sigognac consented to accompany us to Paris, he hoped to find some opportunity there to retrieve his fallen fortunes; but it has not presented itself. In order not to be an expense to the troupe, he generously and nobly insisted upon taking the place of one of the actors, who died on the way, and who was a great loss to us. As he could appear upon the stage always masked, he surely did not compromise his dignity by it."
"Under this theatrical disguise, I think that, without being a sorcerer, I can detect a little bit of romance, eh?" said the prince, with a mischievous smile. "But I will not inquire too closely; I know how good and true you are well enough not to take alarm at any respectful tribute paid to your charms. I have not been with you long enough yet as a father, my sweet child, to venture upon sermonizing."
As he paused, Isabelle raised her lovely eyes, in which shone the purest innocence and the most perfect loyalty, to his, and met his questioning gaze unflinchingly. The rosy flush which the first mention of de Sigognac's name had called up was gone, and her countenance showed no faintest sign of embarrassment or shame. In her pure heart the most searching looks of a father, of God himself, could have found nothing to condemn. Just at this point the doctor's assistant was announced, who brought a most favourable report from the sick-room. He was charged to tell the prince that his son's condition was eminently satisfactory—a marked change for the better having taken place; and that Maitre Laurent considered the danger past—believing that his recovery was now only a question of time.
A few days later, Vallombreuse, propped up on his pillows, received a visit from his faithful and devoted friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc, whom he had not been permitted to see earlier. The prince was sitting by the bedside, affectionately watching every flitting expression on his son's face, which was pathetically thin and pale, but handsomer than ever; because the old haughty, fierce look had vanished, and a soft light, that had never been in them before, shone in his beautiful eyes, whereat his father's heart rejoiced exceedingly. Isabelle stood at the other side of the bed, and the young duke had clasped his thin, startlingly white fingers round her hand. As he was forbidden to speak, save in monosyllables—because of his injured lung—he took this means of testifying his sympathy with her, who had been the involuntary cause of his being wounded and in danger of losing his life, and thus made her understand that he cherished no resentments. The affectionate brother had replaced the fiery lover, and his illness, in calming his ardent passion, had contributed not a little to make the transition a less difficult one than it could possibly have been otherwise. Isabelle was now for him really and only the Comtesse de Lineuil, his dear sister. He nodded in a friendly way to Vidalinc, and disengaged his hand for a moment from Isabelle's to give it to him—it was all that the doctor would allow—but his eyes were eloquent enough to make up for his enforced silence.
In the course of a few weeks, Vallombreuse, who had gained strength rapidly, was able to leave his bed and recline upon a lounge near the open window; so as to enjoy the mild, delightful air of spring, that brought colour to his cheeks and light to his eyes. Isabelle was often with him, and read aloud for hours together to entertain him; as Maitre Laurent's orders were strict that he should not talk, even yet, any more than was actually necessary. One day, when Isabelle had finished a chapter in the volume from which she was reading to him, and was about to begin another, he interrupted her, and said, "My dear sister, that book is certainly very amusing, and the author a man of remarkable wit and talent; but I must confess that I prefer your charming conversation to your delightful reading. Do you know, I would not have believed it possible to gain so much, in losing all hope of what I desired more ardently than I had ever done anything in my whole life before. The brother is very much more kindly treated than the suitor—are you aware of that? You are as sweet and amiable to the one as you were severe and unapproachable to the other. I find in this calm, peaceful affection, charms that I had never dreamed of, and you reveal to me a new side of the feminine character, hitherto utterly unknown to me. Carried away by fiery passions, and irritated to madness by any opposition, I was like the wild huntsman of the ancient legend, who stopped for no obstacle, but rode recklessly over everything in his path. I looked upon whatever beautiful woman I was in pursuit of as my legitimate prey. I scouted the very idea of failure, and deemed myself irresistible. At the mention of virtue, I only shrugged my shoulders, and I think I may say, without too much conceit, to the only woman I ever pursued who did not yield to me, that I had reason not to put much faith in it. My mother died when I was a mere baby; you, my sweet sister, were not near me, and I have never known, until now, all the purity, tenderness, and sublime courage of which your sex is capable. I chanced to see you. An irresistible attraction, in which, perhaps, the unknown tie of blood had its influence, drew me to you, and for the first time in my life a feeling of respect and esteem mingled with my passion. Your character delighted me, even when you drove me to despair. I could not but secretly approve and admire the modest and courteous firmness with which you rejected my homage. The more decidedly you repulsed me, the more I felt that you were worthy of my adoration. Anger and admiration succeeded each other in my heart, and even in my most violent paroxysms of rage I always respected you. I descried the angel in the woman, and bowed to the ascendency of a celestial purity. Now I am happy and blessed indeed; for I have in you precisely what I needed, without knowing it—this pure affection, free from all earthly taint—unalterable—eternal. I possess at last the love of a soul."
"Yes, my dear brother, it is yours," Isabelle replied; "and it is a great source of happiness to me that I am able to assure you of it. You have in me a devoted sister and friend, who will love you doubly to make up for the years we have lost—above all, now that you have promised me to correct the faults that have so grieved and alarmed our dear father, and to exhibit only the good qualities of which YOU have plenty."
"Oh! you little preacher," cried Vallombreuse, with a bright, admiring smile; "how you take advantage of my weakness. However, it is perfectly true that I have been a dreadful monster, but I really do mean to do better in future—if not for love of virtue itself, at least to avoid seeing my charming sister put on a severe, disapproving air, at some atrocious escapade of mine. Still, I fear that I shall always be Folly, as you will be Reason."
"If you will persist in paying me such high-flown compliments," said Isabelle, with a little shrug of her pretty shoulders, "I shall certainly resume the reading, and you will have to listen to a long story that the corsair is just about to relate to the beautiful princess, his captive, in the cabin of his galley."
"Oh, no! surely I do not deserve such a severe punishment as that. Even at the risk of appearing garrulous, I do so want to talk a little. That confounded doctor has kept me mute long enough in all conscience, and I am tired to death of having the seal of silence upon my lips, like a statue of Hippocrates."
"But I am afraid you may do yourself harm; remember that your wound is scarcely healed yet, and the injured lung is still very irritable. Maitre Laurent laid such stress upon my reading to you, so that you should keep quiet, and give your chest a good chance to get strong and well again."
"Maitre Laurent doesn't know what he's talking about, and only wants to prolong his own importance to me. My lungs work as well as ever they did. I feel perfectly myself again, and I've a great mind to order my horse and go for a canter in the forest."
"You had better talk than do such a wildly imprudent thing as that; it is certainly less dangerous."
"I shall very soon be about again, my sweet little sister, and then I shall have the pleasure of introducing you into the society suitable to your rank—where your incomparable grace and beauty will create a sensation, and bring crowds of adorers to your feet. From among them you will be able to select a husband, eh?" "I can have no desire to do anything of that kind, Vallombreuse, and pray do not think this the foolish declaration of a girl who would be very sorry to be taken at her word. I am entirely in earnest, I do assure you. I have bestowed my hand so often in the last act of the pieces I have played that I am in no hurry to do it in reality. I do not wish for anything better than to remain quietly here with the prince and yourself."
"But, my dear girl, a father and brother will not always content you—do not think it! Such affection cannot satisfy the demands of the heart forever."
"It will be enough for me, however, and if some day they fail me, I can take refuge in a convent."
"Heaven forbid! that would be carrying austerity too far indeed. I pray you never to mention it again, if you have any regard for my peace of mind. And now tell me, my sweet little sister, what do you think of my dear friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc? does not he seem to be possessed of every qualification necessary to make a good husband?"
"Doubtless, and the woman that he marries will have a right to consider herself fortunate but however charming and desirable your friend may be, my dear Vallombreuse, I shall never be that woman."
"Well, let him pass, then—but tell me what you think of the Marquis de l'Estang, who came to see me the other day, and gazed spell-bound at my lovely sister all the time he was here. He was so overwhelmed by your surpassing grace, so dazzled by your exquisite beauty, that he was struck dumb, and when he tried to pay you pretty compliments, did nothing but stammer and blush. Aside from this timidity, which made him appear to great disadvantage, and which your ladyship should readily excuse, since you yourself were the cause of it, the marquis is an accomplished and estimable gentleman. He is handsome, young, of high birth and great wealth. He would do capitally for my fair sister, and is sure to address himself to the prince—if indeed he has not already done so—as an aspirant to the honour of an alliance with her."
"As I have the honour of belonging to this illustrious family," said Isabelle a little impatiently, for she was exceedingly annoyed by this banter, "too much humility would not become me, therefore I will not say that I consider myself unworthy of such an alliance; but if the Marquis de l'Estang should ask my hand of my father, I would refuse him. I have told you, my dear brother, more than once, that I do not wish to marry—and you know it too—so pray don't tease me any more about it."
"Oh! what a fierce, determined little woman is this fair sister of mine. Diana herself was not more inaccessible, in the forests and valleys of Haemus—yet, if the naughty mythological stories may be believed, she did at last smile upon a certain Endymion. You are vexed, because I casually propose some suitable candidates for the honour of your hand; but you need not be, for, if THEY do not please you, we will hunt up one who will."
"I am not vexed, my dear brother, but you are certainly talking far too much for an invalid, and I shall tell Maitre, Laurent to reprimand you, or not permit you to have the promised bit of fowl for your supper."
"Oh! if that's the case I will desist at once," said Vallombreuse, with a droll air of submission, "for I'm as hungry as an ogre—but rest assured of one thing, my charming sister: No one shall select your husband but myself."
To put an end to this teasing, Isabelle began to read the corsair's long story, without paying any attention to the indignant protests that were made, and Vallombreuse, to revenge himself, finally closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep; which feigned slumber soon became real, and Isabelle, perceiving that it was so, put aside her book and quietly stole away.
This conversation, in which, under all his mischievous banter, the duke seemed to have a definite and serious purpose in view, worried Isabelle very much, in spite of her efforts to banish it from her mind. Could it be that Vallombreuse was nursing a secret resentment against de Sigognac? He had never once spoken his name, or referred to him in any way, since he was wounded by him; and was he trying to place an insurmountable barrier between his sister and the baron, by bringing about her marriage with another? or was he simply trying to find out whether the actress transformed to a countess, had changed in sentiments as well as in rank? Isabelle could not answer these questions satisfactorily to herself. As she was the duke's sister, of course the rivalry between him and de Sigognac could no longer exist; but, on the other hand, it was difficult to imagine that such a haughty, vindictive character as the young duke's could have forgotten, or forgiven, the ignominy of his first defeat at the baron's hands, and still less of the second more disastrous encounter. Although their relative positions were changed, Vallombreuse, in his heart, would doubtless always hate de Sigognac—even if he had magnanimity enough to forgive him, it could scarcely be expected that he should also love him, and be willing to welcome him as a member of his family. No, all hope of such a reconciliation must be abandoned. Besides, she feared that the prince, her father, would never be able to regard with favour the man who had imperilled the life of his only son. These sad thoughts threw poor Isabelle into a profound melancholy, which she in vain endeavoured to shake off. As long as she considered that her position as an actress would be an obstacle to de Sigognac, she had resolutely repelled the idea of a marriage with him, but now that an unhoped-for, undreamed-of stroke of destiny had heaped upon her all the good things that heart could desire, she would have loved to reward, with the gift of her hand and fortune, the faithful lover who had addressed her when she was poor and lowly—it seemed an actual meanness, to her generous spirit, not to share her prosperity with the devoted companion of her misery. But all that she could do was to be faithful to him—for she dared not say a word in his favour, either to the prince or to Vallombreuse.
Very soon the young duke was well enough to join his father and sister at meals, and he manifested such respectful and affectionate deference to the prince, and such an ingenuous and delicate tenderness towards Isabelle, that it was evident he had, in spite of his apparent frivolity, a mind and character very superior to what one would have expected to find in such a licentious, ungovernable youth as he had been, and which gave promise of an honourable and useful manhood. Isabelle took her part modestly—but with a very sweet dignity, that sat well upon her—in the conversation at the table, and in the salon, and her remarks were so to the point, so witty, and so apropos, that the prince was astonished as well as charmed, and grew daily more proud of and devoted to his new treasure; finding a happiness and satisfaction he had longed for all his life in the affection and devotion of his children.
At last Vallombreuse was pronounced well enough to mount his horse, and go for a ride in the forest—which he had long been sighing for—and Isabelle gladly consented to bear him company. They looked a wonderfully handsome pair, as they rode leisurely through the leafy arcades. But there was one very marked difference between them.
The young man's countenance was radiant with happiness and smiles, but the girl's face was clouded over with an abiding melancholy. Occasionally her brother's lively sallies would bring a faint smile to her sweet lips, but they fell back immediately into the mournful droop that had become habitual with them. Vallombreuse apparently did not perceive it—though in reality he was well aware of it, and of its cause—and was full of fun and frolic.
"Oh! what a delicious thing it is to live," he cried, "yet how seldom we think of the exquisite enjoyment there is in the simple act of breathing," and he drew a long, deep breath, as if he never could get enough of the soft, balmy air. "The trees surely were never so green before, the sky so blue, or the flowers so fragrant. I feet as if I had been born into the world only yesterday, and was looking upon nature for the first time to-day. I never appreciated it before. When I remember that I might even now be lying, stiff and stark, under a fine marble monument, and that instead of that I am riding through an elysium, beside my darling sister, who has really learned to love me, I am too divinely happy. I do not even feel my wound any more. I don't believe that I ever was wounded. And now for a gallop, for I'm sure that our good father is wearying for us at home."
In spite of Isabelle's remonstrances he put spurs to his horse, and she could not restrain hers when its companion bounded forward, so off they went at a swift pace, and never drew rein until they reached the chateau. As he lifted his sister down from her saddle, Vallombreuse said, "Now, after to-day's achievement, I can surely be treated like a big boy, and get permission to go out by myself."
"What! you want to go away and leave us already? and scarcely well yet, you bad boy!"
"Even so, my sweet sister; I want to make a little journey that will take several days," said Vallombreuse negligently.
Accordingly, the very next morning he departed, after having taken an affectionate leave of the prince, his father; who did not oppose his going, as Isabelle had confidently expected, but seemed, on the contrary, to approve of it heartily. After receiving many charges to be careful and prudent, from his sister, which he dutifully promised to remember and obey, the young duke bade her good-bye also, and said, in a mysterious, yet most significant way,
"Au revoir, my sweet little sister, you will be pleased with what I am about to do." And Isabelle sought in vain for the key to the enigma.
CHAPTER XIX. NETTLES AND COBWEBS
The worthy tyrant's advice was sensible and good, and de Sigognac resolved to follow it without delay. Since Isabelle's departure, no attraction existed for him in the troupe, and he was very glad of a valid pretext for quitting it; though he could not leave his humble friends without some regrets. It was necessary that he should disappear for a while—plunge into obscurity, until the excitement consequent upon the violent death of the young Duke of Vallombreuse should be forgotten in some new tragedy in real life.
So, after bidding farewell to the worthy comedians, who had shown him so much kindness, he departed from the gay capital—mounted on a stout pony, and with a tolerably well-filled purse—his share of the receipts of the troupe, which he had fairly earned. By easy stages he travelled slowly towards his own ruined chateau. After the storm the bird flies home to its nest, no matter how ragged and torn it may be. It was the only refuge open to him, and in the midst of his despondency he felt a sort of sad pleasure at the thought of returning to his ancestral home—desolate and forlorn as it was—where it would have been better, perhaps, for him to have quietly remained—for his fortunes were not improved, and this last crowning disaster had been ruinous to all his hopes and prospects of happiness.
"Ah, well!" said he to himself, sorrowfully, as he jogged slowly on, "it was predestined that I should die of hunger and ennui within those crumbling walls, and under my poor, dilapidated, old roof, that lets the rain run through it like a huge sieve. No one can escape his destiny, and I shall accomplish mine. I am doomed to be the last de Sigognac."
Then came visions of what might have been, that made the sad present seem even darker by contrast; and his burden was well-nigh too heavy for him to bear, when he remembered all Isabelle's goodness and loveliness—now lost to him forever. No wonder that his eyes were often wet with tears, and that there was no brightness even in the sunshine for him.
It is needless to describe in detail a journey that lasted twenty days, and was not marked by any remarkable incidents or adventures. It is enough to say that one fine evening de Sigognac saw from afar the lofty towers of his ancient chateau, illuminated by the setting sun, and shining out in bold relief against the soft purple of the evening sky; whilst one of the few remaining casements had caught the fiery sunset glow, and looked like a great carbuncle set in the fine facade of the stately old castle. This sight aroused a strange tenderness and agitation in the young baron's breast. It was true that he had suffered long and acutely in that dreary mansion, yet after all it was very dear to him—far more than he knew before he had quitted it—and he was deeply moved at seeing it again. In a few moments more the glorious god of day had sunk behind the western horizon, and the chateau seemed to retreat, until it became scarcely perceptible as the light faded, forming only a vague, gray blot in the distance as the gloaming succeeded to the glow. But de Sigognac knew every step of the way perfectly, and soon turned from the highway into the neglected, grass-grown road that led to the chateau. In the profound stillness, which seemed wonderfully peaceful and pleasant to him, he fancied that he could distinguish the distant barking of a dog, and that it sounded like Miraut. He stopped to listen; yes, there could be no doubt about it, and it was approaching. The baron gave a clear, melodious whistle—a signal well known of old to Miraut-and in a few moments the faithful dog, running as fast as his poor old legs could carry him, burst through a break in the hedge—panting, barking, almost sobbing for joy. He strove to jump up on the horse's neck to get at his beloved master; he was beside himself with delight, and manifested it in the most frantic manner, whilst de Sigognac bent down to pat his head and try to quiet his wild transports. After bearing his master company a little way, Miraut set off again at full speed, to announce the good news to the others at the chateau—that is to say, to Pierre, Bayard, and Beelzebub—and bounding into the kitchen where the old servant was sitting, lost in sad thoughts, he barked in such a significant way that Pierre knew at once that something unusual had happened.
"Can it be possible that the young master is coming? said he aloud, rising, in compliance with Miraut's wishes, who was pulling at the skirts of his coat, and imploring him with his eyes to bestir himself and follow him. As it was quite dark by this time, Pierre lighted a pine torch, which he carried with him, and as he turned into the road its ruddy light suddenly flashed upon de Sigognac and his horse.
"Is it really you, my lord?" cried Pierre, joyfully, as he caught sight of his young master; "Miraut had tried to tell me of your arrival in his own way before I left the house, but as I had not heard anything about your even thinking of coming, I feared that he might be mistaken. Welcome home to your own domain, my beloved master! We are overjoyed to see you."
"Yes, my good Pierre, it is really I, and not my wraith. Miraut was not mistaken. Here I am again, if not richer than when I went away, at least all safe and sound. Come now, lead the way with your torch, and we will go into the chateau."
Pierre, not without considerable difficulty, opened the great door, and the Baron de Sigognac rode slowly through the ancient portico, fantastically illuminated by the flaring torchlight, in which the three sculptured storks overhead seemed to be flapping their wings, as if in joyful salutation to the last representative of the family they had symbolized for so many centuries. Then a loud, impatient whinny, like the blast of a trumpet, was heard ringing out on the still night air, as Bayard, in his stable, caught the welcome sound of his master's voice.
"Yes, yes, I hear you, my poor old Bayard," cried de Sigognac, as he dismounted in the court, and threw the bridle to Pierre; "I am coming to say how d'you do," and as he turned he stumbled over Beelzebub, who was trying to rub himself against his master's legs, purring and mewing alternately to attract his attention. The baron stooped down, took the old black cat up in his arms, and tenderly caressed him as he advanced towards the stables; then put him down gently as he reached Bayard's stall, and another touching scene of affectionate greeting was enacted. The poor old pony laid his head lovingly on his master's shoulder, and actually tried to kick up his hind legs in a frisky way in honour of the great event; also, he received the horse that de Sigognac had ridden all the way from Paris, and which was put in the stall beside his own, very politely, and seemed pleased to have a companion in his solitary grandeur.
"And now that I have responded to the endearments of my dumb friends," said the baron to Pierre, "we will go into the kitchen, and examine into the condition of your larder. I had but a poor breakfast this morning, and no dinner at all, being anxious to push on and reach my journey's end before nightfall. I am as hungry as a bear, and will be glad of anything, no matter what."
"I have not much to put before you, my lord, and I fear that you will find it but sorry fare after the delicacies you must have been accustomed to in Paris; but though it will not be tempting, nor over savoury, it will at least satisfy your hunger."
"That is all that can be required of any food," answered de Sigognac, "and I am not as ungrateful as you seem to think, my good Pierre, to the frugal fare of my youth, which has certainly made me healthy, vigorous, and strong. Bring out what you have, and serve it as proudly as if it were of the choicest and daintiest; I will promise to do honour to it, for I am desperately hungry."
The old servant bustled about joyously, and quickly had the table ready for his master; then stood behind his chair, while he ate and drank with a traveller's appetite, as proudly erect as if he had been a grand major-domo waiting on a prince. According to the old custom, Miraut and Beelzebub, stationed on the right and on the left, watched their master's every motion, and received a share of everything that was on the table. The great kitchen was lighted, not very brilliantly, by a torch, stuck in an iron bracket just inside the broad, open chimney, so that the smoke should escape through it and not fill the room, and the scene was so exactly a counterpart of the one described at the beginning of this narrative, that the baron, struck with the perfect resemblance, fancied that he must have been dreaming, and had never quitted his ancient chateau at all. Everything was precisely as he had left it, excepting that the nettles and weeds had grown a little taller, and the cobweb draperies a little more voluminous; all else was unchanged. Unconsciously lapsing into the old ways, de Sigognac fell into a deep reverie after he had finished his simple repast, which Pierre, as of old, respected, and even Miraut and Beelzebub did not venture to intrude upon. All that had occurred since he last sat at his own table passed in review before him, but seemed like adventures that he had read of, not actually participated in himself. It had all passed into the background. Captain Fracasse, already nearly obliterated, appeared like a pale spectre in the far distance; his combats with the Duke of Vallombreuse seemed equally unreal. In fine, everything that he had seen, done, and suffered, had sunk into shadowy vagueness; but his love for Isabelle had undergone no change; it had neither diminished nor grown cold; it was as passionate and all-absorbing as ever; it was his very life; yet rather like an aspiration of the soul than a real passion, since with it all he knew that the angelic being who was its object, and whom he worshipped from afar, could never, never be his. The wheels of his chariot, which for a brief space had turned aside into a new track, were back in the old rut again, and realizing that there could be no further escape from it possible for him, he gave way sullenly to a despairing, stolid sort of resignation, that he had no heart to struggle against, but yielded to it passively; blaming himself the while for having presumed to indulge in a season of bright hopes and delicious dreams. Why the devil should such an unlucky fellow as he had always been venture to aspire to happiness? It was all foolishness, and sure to end in bitter disappointment; but he had had his lesson now, and would be wiser for the future.
He sat perfectly motionless for a long time, plunged in a sad reverie—sunk in a species of torpor; but he roused himself at last, and perceiving that his faithful old follower's eyes were fixed upon him, full of timid questioning that he did not venture to put into words, briefly related to him the principal incidents of his journey up to the capital, and his short stay there. When he graphically described his two duels with the Duke of Vallombreuse—the old man, filled with pride and delight at the proficiency of his beloved pupil, could not restrain his enthusiasm, and snatching up a stick gave vigorous illustrations of all the most salient points of the encounters as the baron delineated them, ending up with a wild flourish and a shout of triumph.
"Alas! my good Pierre," said he, with a sigh, when quiet was restored, "you taught me how to use my sword only too well. My unfortunate victory has been my ruin, and has sent me back, hopeless and bereaved, to this poor old crumbling chateau of mine, where I am doomed to drag out the weary remainder of my days in sorrow and misery. I am peculiarly unhappy, in that my very triumphs have only made matters worse for me—it would have been better far for me, and for all, if I had been wounded, or even killed, in this last disastrous encounter, instead of my rival and enemy, the young Duke of Vallombreuse."
"The de Sigognacs are never beaten," said the old retainer loftily. "No matter what may come of it, I am glad, my dear young master, that you killed that insolent duke. The whole thing was conducted in strict accordance with the code of honour—what more could be desired? How could any valiant gentleman object to die gloriously, sword in hand, of a good, honest wound, fairly given? He should consider himself most fortunate."
"Ah well! perhaps you are right—I will not dispute you," said de Sigognac, smiling secretly at the old man's philosophy. "But I am very tired, and would like to go to my own room now—will you light the lamp, my good Pierre, and lead the way?"
Pierre obeyed, and the baron, preceded by his old servant and followed by his old dog and cat, slowly ascended the ancient staircase. The quaint frescoes were gradually fading, growing ever paler and more indistinct, and there were new stains on the dull blue sky of the vaulted ceiling, where the rain and melting snow of winter storms had filtered through from the dilapidated roof. The ruinous condition of everything in and about the crumbling old chateau, to which de Sigognac had been perfectly accustomed before he quitted it, and taken as a matter of course, now struck him forcibly, and increased his dejection. He saw in it the sad and inevitable decadence of his race, and said to himself, "If these ancient walls had any pity for the last forlorn remnant of the family they have sheltered for centuries, they would fall in and bury me in their ruins."
When he reached the landing at the head of the stairs he took the lamp from Pierre's hand, bade him good-night and dismissed him—not willing that even his faithful old servant, who had cared for him ever since his birth, should witness his overpowering emotion. He walked slowly through the great banqueting hall, where the comedians had supped on that memorable night, and the remembrance of that gay scene rendered the present dreary solitude and silence more terrible than they had ever seemed to him before. The death-like stillness was only broken by the horrid gnawing of a rat somewhere in the wall, and the old family portraits glared down at him reproachfully, as he passed on below them with listless step and downcast eyes, oblivious of everything but his own deep misery, and his yearning for his lost Isabelle. As he came under the last portrait of all, that of his own sweet young mother, he suddenly looked up, and as his eyes rested on the calm, beautiful countenance—which had always worn such a pathetic, mournful expression that it used to make his heart ache to look at it in his boyish days—it seemed to smile upon him. He was startled for an instant, and then, thrilling with a strange, exquisite delight, and inspired with new hope and courage, he said in a low, earnest tone, "I accept my dear dead mother's smile as a good omen—perhaps all may not be lost even yet—I will try to believe so."
After a moment of silent thought, he went on into his own chamber, and put down the small lamp he carried, upon the little table, where still lay the stray volume of Ronsard's poems that he had been reading—or rather trying to read—on that tempestuous night when the old pedant knocked at his door. And there was his bed, where Isabelle had slept—the very pillow upon which her dear head had rested. He trembled as he stood and gazed at it, and saw, as in a vision, the perfect form lying there again in his place, and the sweetest face in all the world turned towards him, with a tender smile parting the ripe red lips, a rosy flush mantling in the delicate cheeks, and warm lovelight shining in the deep blue eyes. He stood spell-bound—afraid to move or breathe—and worshipped the beautiful vision with all his soul and strength, as if it had been indeed divine—but alas! it faded as suddenly as it had appeared, and he felt as if the doors of heaven had been shut upon him. He hastily undressed, and threw himself down in the place where Isabelle had actually reposed; passionately kissed the pillow that had been hallowed by the touch of her head, and bedewed it with his tears. He lay long awake, thinking of the angelic being who loved him and whom he adored, whilst Beelzebub, rolled up in a ball, slept at his feet, and snored like the traditional cat of Mahomet, that lay and slumbered upon the prophet's sleeve.
When morning came, de Sigognac was more impressed than ever with the dilapidated, crumbling condition of his ancient mansion. Daylight has no mercy upon old age and ruins; it reveals with cruel distinctness the wrinkles, gray hairs, poverty, misery, stains, fissures, dust and mould in which they abound; but more kindly night softens or conceals all defects, with its friendly shade, spreading over them its mantle of darkness. The rooms that used to seem so vast to their youthful owner had shrunken, and looked almost small and insignificant to him now, to his extreme surprise and mortification; but he soon regained the feeling of being really at home, and resumed his former way of life completely; just as one goes back to an old garment, that has for a time been laid aside, and replaced by a new one. His days were spent thus: early in the morning he went to say a short prayer in the half-ruined chapel where his ancestors lay, ere he repaired to the kitchen where his simple breakfast awaited him; that disposed of, he and old Pierre fetched their swords, and fought their friendly duels; after which he mounted Bayard, or the pony he had brought home with him, and went off for long, solitary rides over the desolate Landes. Returning late in the afternoon he sat, sad and silent as of old, until his frugal supper was prepared, partook of it, also in silence, and then retired to his lonely chamber, where he tried to read some musty old volume which he knew by heart already, or else flung himself on his bed—never without kissing the sacred pillow that had supported Isabelle's beloved head—and lay there a prey to mournful and bitter meditations, until at last he could forget his troubles and grief in sleep. There was not a vestige left of the brilliant Captain Fracasse, nor of the high-spirited rival of the haughty Duke of Vallombreuse; the unfortunate young Baron de Sigognac had relapsed entirely into the sad-eyed, dejected master of Castle Misery.
One morning he sauntered listlessly down into the garden, which was wilder and more overgrown than ever—a tangled mass of weeds and brambles. He mechanically directed his steps towards the straggling eglantine that had had a little rose ready for each of the fair visitors that accompanied him when last he was there, and was surprised and delighted to see that it again held forth, as if for his acceptance, two lovely little blossoms that had come out to greet him, and upon each of which a dewdrop sparkled amid the frail, delicately tinted petals. He was strangely moved and touched by the sight of these tiny wild roses, which awoke such tender, precious memories, and he repeated to himself, as he had often done before, the words in which Isabelle had confessed to him that she had furtively kissed the little flower, his offering, and dropped a tear upon it, and then secretly given him her own heart in exchange for it—surely the sweetest words ever spoken on this earth. He gently plucked one of the dainty little roses, passionately inhaled its delicate fragrance and pressed a kiss upon it, as if it had been her lips, which were not less sweet, and soft, and fresh. He had done nothing but think of Isabelle ever since their separation, and he fully realized now, if he had not before, how indispensable she was to his happiness. She was never out of his mind, waking or sleeping, for he dreamed of her every night, and his love grew fonder, if that were possible, as the weary days went on. She was so good and true, so pure and sweet, so beautiful, so everything that was lovely and desirable, "made of all creatures' best," a veritable angel in human guise. Ah! how passionately he loved her—how could he live without her? Yet he feared—he was almost forced to believe—that he had lost her irreparably, and that for him hope was dead. Those were terrible days for the poor, grief-stricken young baron, and he felt that he could not long endure such misery and live. Two or three months passed away thus, and one day when de Sigognac chanced to be in his own room, finishing a sonnet addressed to Isabelle, Pierre entered, and announced to his master that there was a gentleman without who wished to speak with him.