"I am going to kill this animal—this hideous horrible animal," said Monsieur the Viscount, struggling vainly under the grasp of the tutor's finger and thumb.
"It is only a toad," said Monsieur the Preceptor, in his laconic tones.
"Only a toad, do you say, Monsieur?" said the Viscount. "That is enough, I think. It will bite—it will spit—it will poison; it is like that dragon you tell me of, that devastated Rhodes—I am the good knight that shall kill it."
Monsieur the Preceptor laughed heartily "You are misled by a vulgar error. Toads do not bite—they have no teeth; neither do they spit poison."
"You are wrong, Monsieur," said the Viscount; "I have seen their teeth myself. Claude Mignon, at the lodge, has two terrible ones, which he keeps in his pocket as a charm."
"I have seen them," said the tutor, "in Monsieur Claude's pocket. When he can show me similar ones in a toad's head I will believe. Meanwhile, I must beg of you, Monsieur, to put up your sword. You must not kill this poor animal, which is quite harmless, and very useful in a garden—it feeds upon many insects and reptiles which injure the plants."
"It shall not be useful in this garden," said the little Viscount, fretfully. "There are plenty of gardeners to destroy the insects, and if needful, we can have more. But the toad shall not remain. My mother would faint if she saw so hideous a beast among her beautiful flowers."
"Jacques!" roared the tutor to a gardener who was at some distance. Jacques started as if a clap of thunder had sounded in his ear, and approached with low bows. "Take that toad, Jacques, and carry it to the potager. It will keep the slugs from your cabbages."
Jacques bowed low and lower, and scratched his head, and then did reverence again with Asiatic humility, but at the same time moved gradually backwards, and never even looked at the toad.
"You also have seen the contents of Monsieur Claude's pocket?" said the tutor, significantly, and quitting his hold of the Viscount, he stooped down, seized the toad in his huge finger and thumb, and strode off in the direction of the potager, followed at a respectful distance by Jacques, who vented his awe and astonishment in alternate bows and exclamations at the astounding conduct of the incomprehensible Preceptor.
"What is the use of such ugly beasts?" said the Viscount to his tutor, on his return from the potager. "Birds and butterflies are pretty, but what can such villains as these toads have been made for?"
"You should study natural history, Monsieur—" began the priest, who was himself a naturalist.
"That is what you always say," interrupted the Viscount, with the perverse folly of ignorance; "but if I knew as much as you do, it would not make me understand why such ugly creatures need have been made."
"Nor," said the priest, firmly, "is it necessary that you should understand it, particularly if you do not care to inquire. It is enough for you and me if we remember Who made them, some six thousand years before either of us was born."
With which Monsieur the Preceptor (who had all this time kept his place in the little book with his big thumb) returned to the terrace, and resumed his devotions at the point where they had been interrupted; which exercise he continued till he was joined by the Cure of the village, and the two priests relaxed in the political and religious gossip of the day.
Monsieur the Viscount rejoined his young guests, and they fed the gold fish and the swans, and played Colin Millard in the shady walks, and made a beautiful bouquet for Madame, and then fled indoors at the first approach of evening chill, and found that the Viscountess had prepared a feast of fruit and flowers for them in the great hall. Here, at the head of the table, with the Madame at his right hand, his guests around, and the liveried lackeys waiting his commands, Monsieur the Viscount forgot that anything had ever been made which could mar beauty and enjoyment; while the two priests outside stalked up and down under the falling twilight, and talked ugly talk of crime and poverty that were somewhere now, and of troubles to come hereafter.
And so night fell over the beautiful sky, the beautiful chateau, and the beautiful gardens; and upon the secure slumbers of beautiful Madame and her beautiful son, and beautiful, beautiful France.
It was the year of grace 1792, thirteen years after the events related in the last chapter. It was the 2d of September, and Sunday, a day of rest and peace in all Christian countries, and even more in gay, beautiful France—a day of festivity and merriment. This Sunday, however, seemed rather an exception to the general rule. There were no gay groups of bannered processions; the typical incense and the public devotion of which it is the symbol were alike wanting; the streets in some places seemed deserted, and in others there was an ominous crowd, and the dreary silence was now and then broken by a distant sound of yells and cries, that struck terror into the hearts of the Parisians.
It was a deserted by-street overlooked by some shut-up warehouses, and from the cellar of one of these a young man crept up on to the pathway. His dress had once been beautiful, but it was torn and soiled; his face was beautiful still, but it was marred by the hideous eagerness of a face on which famine has laid her hand—he was starving. As this man came out from the warehouse, another man came down the street. His dress was not beautiful, neither was he. There was a red look about him—he wore a red flannel cap, tricolor ribbons, and had something red upon his hands, which was neither ribbon nor flannel. He also looked hungry; but it was not for food. The other stopped when he saw him, and pulled something from his pocket. It was a watch, a repeater, in a gold filigree case of exquisite workmanship, with raised figures depicting the loves of an Arcadian shepherd and shepherdess; and, as it lay on the white hand of its owner, it bore an evanescent fragrance that seemed to recall scenes as beautiful and as completely past as the days of pastoral perfection, when—
"All the world and love were young, And truth in every shepherd's tongue."
The young man held it up to the other and spoke.
"It is my mother's," he said, with an appealing glance of violet eyes; "I would not part with it, but that I am starving. Will you get me food?"
"You are hiding?" said he of the red cap.
"Is that a crime in these days?" said the other, with a smile that would in other days have been irresistible.
The man took the watch, shaded the donor's beautiful face with a rough red cap and tricolor ribbon, and bade him follow him. He, who had but lately come to Paris, dragged his exhausted body after his conductor, hardly noticed the crowds in the streets, the signs by which the man got free passage for them both, or their entrance by a little side-door into a large dark building, and never knew till he was delivered to one of the gaolers that he had been led into the prison of the Abbaye. Then the wretch tore the cap of liberty from his victim's head, and pointed to him with a fierce laugh.
"He wants food, this aristocrat. He shall not wait long—there is a feast in the court below, which he shall join presently. See to it, Antoine! and you Monsieur, Mons-ieur! listen to the banqueters."
He ceased, and in the silence yells and cries from a court below came up like some horrid answer to imprecation.
The man continued—-
"He has paid for his admission, this Monsieur. It belonged to Madame his mother. Behold!"
He held the watch above his head, and dashed it with insane fury on the ground, and bidding the gaoler see to his prisoner, rushed away to the court below.
The prisoner needed some attention. Weakness and fasting and horror had overpowered a delicate body and a sensitive mind, and he lay senseless by the shattered relic of happier times. Antoine the gaoler (a weak-minded man, whom circumstances had made cruel), looked at him with indifference while the Jacobin remained in the place, and with half-suppressed pity when he had gone. The place where he lay was a hall or passage in the prison, into which several cells opened, and a number of the prisoners were gathered together at one end of it. One of them had watched the proceedings of the Jacobin and his victim with profound interest, and now advanced to where the poor youth lay. He was a priest, and though thirteen years had passed over his head since we saw him in the chateau, and though toil and suffering and anxiety had added the traces of as many more: yet it would not have been difficult to recognize the towering height, the candid face, and finally the large thumb in the little book of ——, Monsieur the Preceptor, who had years ago exchanged his old position for a parochial cure. He strode up to the gaoler (whose head came a little above the priest's elbow), and drawing him aside, asked with his old abruptness, "Who is this?"
"It is the Vicomte de B——. I know his face. He has escaped the commissaires for some days."
"I thought so. Is his name on the registers?"
"No. He escaped arrest, and has just been brought in as you saw."
"Antoine," said the Priest, in a low voice, and with a gaze that seemed to pierce the soul of the weak little gaoler; "Antoine, when you were a shoemaker in the Rue de la Croix, in two or three hard winters I think you found me a friend."
"Oh! Monsieur le Cure," said Antoine, writhing; "if Monsieur le Cure would believe that if I could save his life! but—"
"Pshaw!" said the Priest, "it is not for myself, but for this boy. You must save him, Antoine. Hear me, you must. Take him now to one of the lower cells and hide him. You risk nothing. His name is not on the prison register. He will not be called, he will not be missed; that fanatic will think that he has perished with the rest of us;" (Antoine shuddered, though the priest did not move a muscle;) "and when this mad fever has subsided and order is restored, he will reward you. And Antoine—"
Here the Priest pocketed his book and somewhat awkwardly with his huge hands unfastened the left side of his cassock, and tore the silk from the lining. Monsieur the Cure's cassock seemed a cabinet of oddities. First he pulled from this ingenious hiding-place a crucifix, which he replaced; then a knot of white ribbon which he also restored; and finally a tiny pocket or bag of what had been cream-colored satin embroidered with small bunches of heartsease, and which was aromatic with otto of roses. Awkwardly, and somewhat slowly he drew out of this a small locket, in the center of which was some unreadable legend in cabalistic looking character, and which blazed with the finest diamonds. Heaven alone knows the secret of that gem, or the struggle with which the Priest yielded it. He put it into Antoine's hand, talking as he did so, partly to himself and partly to the gaoler.
"We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The diamonds are of the finest, Antoine, and will sell for much. The blessing of a dying priest upon you if you do kindly, and his curse if you do ill to his poor child, whose home was my home in better days. And for the locket,—it is but a remembrance, and to remember is not difficult!"
As the last observation was not addressed to Antoine, so also he did not hear it. He was discontentedly watching the body of the Viscount, whom he consented to help, but with genuine weak-mindedness consented ungraciously.
"How am I to get him there? Monsieur le Cure sees that he cannot stand upon his feet!"
Monsieur le Cure smiled, and stooping, picked his old pupil up in his arms as if he had been a baby, and bore him to one of the doors.
"You must come no further," said Antoine hastily.
"Ingrate!" muttered the priest in momentary anger, and than ashamed, he crossed himself and pressing the young nobleman to his bosom with the last gush of earthly affection that he was to feel, he kissed his senseless face, spoke a benediction to ears that could not hear it, and laid his burden down.
"God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be with thee now and in the dread hour of death. Adieu! we shall meet hereafter."
The look of pity, the yearning of rekindled love, the struggle of silenced memories passed from his face and left a shining calm—foretaste of the perpetual Light and the eternal Rest.
Before he reached the other prisoners, the large thumb had found its old place in the little book, the lips formed the old old words; but it might almost have been said of him already, that "his spirit was with the God who gave it."
As for Monsieur the Viscount, it was perhaps well that he was not too sensible of his position, for Antoine got him down the flight of stone steps that led to the cell by the simple process of dragging him by the heels. After a similar fashion he crossed the floor, and was deposited on a pallet; the gaoler then emptied a broken pitcher of water over his face, and locking the door securely, hurried back to his charge.
When Monsieur the Viscount came to his senses he raised himself and looked round his new abode. It was a small stone cell; it was underground, with a little grated window at the top that seemed to be level with the court; there was a pallet—painfully pressed and worn,—a chair, a stone on which stood a plate and broken pitcher, and in one corner a huge bundle of firewood which mocked a place where there was no fire. Stones by lay scattered about, the walls were black, and in the far dark corners the wet oozed out and trickled slowly down, and lizards and other reptiles crawled up.
I suppose that the first object that attracts the hopes of a new prisoner is the window of his cell, and to this, despite his weakness, Monsieur the Viscount crept. It afforded him little satisfaction. It was too high in the cell for him to reach it, too low in the prison to command any view, and was securely grated with iron. Then he examined the walls, but not a stone was loose. As he did so, his eye fell upon the floor, and he noticed that two of the stones that lay about had been raised up by some one and a third laid upon the top. It looked like child's play, and Monsieur the Viscount kicked it down, and then he saw that underneath it there was a pellet of paper roughly rolled together. Evidently it was something left by the former occupant of the cell for his successor. Perhaps he had begun some plan for getting away which he had not had time to perfect on his own account. Perhaps—but by this time the paper was spread out, and Monsieur the Viscount read the writing. The paper was old and yellow. It was the fly leaf torn out of a little book and it was written in black chalk, the words—
"Souvenez-vous du Sauveur." (Remember the Saviour.)
He turned it over, he turned it back again; there was no other mark; there was nothing more; and Monsieur the Viscount did not conceal it from himself that he was disappointed. How could it be otherwise? He had been bred in ease and luxury, and surrounded with everything that could make life beautiful; while ugliness, and want, and sickness, and all that make life miserable, had been kept, as far as they can be kept, from the precincts of the beautiful chateau which was his home. What were the consolations of religion to him? They are offered to those, (and to those only) who need them. They were to Monsieur the Viscount what the Crucified Christ was to the Greeks of old—foolishness.
He put the paper in his pocket and lay down again, feeling it the crowning disappointment of what he had lately suffered. Presently, Antoine came with some food; it was not dainty, but Monsieur the Viscount devoured it like a famished hound, and then made inquiries as to how he came and how long he had been there. When the gaoler began to describe him whom he called the Cure, Monsieur the Viscount's attention quickened into eagerness, an eagerness deepened by the tender interest that always hangs round the names of those whom we have known in happier and younger days. The happy memories recalled by hearing of his old tutor seemed to blot out his present misfortunes. With French excitability, he laughed and wept alternately.
"As burly as ever, you say? The little book? I remember it, it was his breviary. Ah! it is he. It is Monsieur the Preceptor, whom I have not seen for years. Take me to him, bring him here, let me see him!"
But Monsieur the Preceptor was in Paradise.
That first night of Monsieur the Viscount's imprisonment was a terrible one. The bitter chill of a Parisian autumn, the gnawings of half-satisfied hunger, the thick walls that shut out all hope of escape but did not exclude those fearful cries that lasted with few intervals throughout the night, made it like some hideous dream. At last the morning broke; at half-past two o'clock, some members of the commune presented themselves in the hall of the National Assembly with the significant announcement: "The prisons are empty!" and Antoine, who had been quaking for hours, took courage, and went with a half loaf of bread and a pitcher of water to the cell that was not "empty." He found his prisoner struggling with a knot of white ribbon, which he was trying to fasten in his hair. One glance at his face told all.
"It is the fever," said Antoine; and he put down the bread and water and fetched an old blanket and a pillow; and that day and for many days, the gaoler hung above his prisoner's pallet with the tenderness of a woman. Was he haunted by the vision of a burly figure that had bent over his own sick bed in the Rue de la Croix? Did the voice (once so familiar in counsel and benediction!) echo still in his ears?
"The blessing of a dying priest upon you if you do well, and his curse if you do ill to this poor child, whose home was my home in better days."
Be this as it may, Antoine tended his patient with all the constancy compatible with keeping his presence in the prison a secret; and it was not till the crisis was safely past, that he began to visit the cell less frequently, and re-assumed the harsh manners which he held to befit his office.
Monsieur the Viscount's mind rambled much in his illness. He called for his mother, who had long been dead. He fancied himself in his own chateau. He thought that all his servants stood in a body before him, but that not one would move to wait on him. He thought that he had abundance of the most tempting food and cooling drinks, but placed just beyond his reach. He thought that he saw two lights like stars near together, which were close to the ground, and kept appearing and then vanishing away. In time he became more sensible; the chateau melted into the stern reality of his prison walls; the delicate food became bread and water; the servants disappeared like spectres; but in the empty cells, in the dark corners near the floor, he still fancied that he saw two sparks of light coming and going, appearing and then vanishing away. He watched them till his giddy head would bear it no longer, and he closed his eyes and slept. When he awoke he was much better, but when he raised himself and turned towards the stone—there, by the bread and the broken pitcher, sat a dirty, ugly, wrinkled toad gazing at him, Monsieur the Viscount, with eyes of yellow fire.
Monsieur the Viscount had long ago forgotten the toad which had alarmed his childhood; but his national dislike to that animal had not been lessened by years, and the toad of the prison seemed likely to fare no better than the toad of the chateau. He dragged himself from his pallet, and took up one of the large damp stones which lay about the floor of the cell, to throw at the intruder. He expected that when he approached it, the toad would crawl away, and that he could throw the stone after it; but to his surprise, the beast sat quite unmoved, looking at him with calm shining eyes, and somehow or other, Monsieur the Viscount lacked strength or heart to kill it. He stood doubtful for a moment, and then a sudden feeling of weakness obliged him to drop the stone, and sit down, while tears sprang to his eyes with a sense of his helplessness.
"Why should I kill it?" he said bitterly. "The beast will live and grow fat upon this damp and loathsomeness, long after they have put an end to my feeble life. It shall remain. The cell is not big, but it is big enough for us both. However large be the rooms a man builds himself to live in, it needs but little space in which to die!"
So Monsieur the Viscount dragged his pallet away from the toad, placed another stone by it, and removed the pitcher; and then, wearied with his efforts, lay down and slept heavily.
When he awoke, on the new stone by the pitcher was the toad, staring full at him with topaz eyes. He lay still this time and did not move, for the animal showed no intention of spitting, and he was puzzled by its tameness.
"It seems to like the sight of a man," he thought. "Is it possible that any former inmate of this wretched prison can have amused his solitude by making a pet of such a creature? and if there were such a man, where is he now?"
Henceforward, sleeping or waking, whenever Monsieur the Viscount lay down upon his pallet, the toad crawled up on to the stone, and kept watch over him with shining lustrous eyes; but whenever there was a sound of the key grating in the lock, and the gaoler coming his rounds, away crept the toad, and was quickly lost in the dark corners of the room. When the man was gone, it returned to its place, and Monsieur the Viscount would talk to it, as he lay on his pallet.
"Ah! Monsieur Crapaud," he would say with mournful pleasantry, "without doubt you have had a master, and a kind one; but tell me who was he, and where is he now? Was he old or young, and was it in the last stage of maddening loneliness that he made friends with such a creature as you?"
Monsieur Crapaud looked very intelligent, but he made no reply, and Monsieur the Viscount had recourse to Antoine.
"Who was in this cell before me?" he asked at the gaoler's next visit.
Antoine's face clouded. "Monsieur le Cure had this room. My orders were that he was to be imprisoned 'in secret.'"
Monsieur le Cure had this room. There was a revelation in those words. It was all explained now. The priest had always had a love for animals (and for ugly, common animals) which his pupil had by no means shared. His room at the chateau had been little less than a menagerie. He had even kept a glass beehive there, which communicated with a hole in the window through which the bees flew in and out, and he would stand for hours with his thumb in the breviary, watching the labors of his pets. And this also had been his room! This dark, damp cell. Here, breviary in hand, he had stood, and lain, and knelt. Here, in this miserable prison, he had found something to love, and on which to expend the rare intelligence and benevolence of his nature. Here, finally, in the last hours of his life, he had written on the fly-leaf of his prayer-book something to comfort his successor, and "being dead yet spoke" the words of consolation which he had administered in his lifetime. Monsieur the Viscount read that paper now with different feelings.
There is perhaps no argument so strong, and no virtue that so commands the respect of young men, as consistency. Monsieur the Preceptor's lifelong counsel and example would have done less for his pupil than was effected by the knowledge of his consistent career, now that it was past. It was not the nobility of the priest's principles that awoke in Monsieur the Viscount a desire to imitate his religious example, but the fact that he had applied them to his own life, not only in the time of wealth, but in the time of tribulation and in the hour of death. All that high-strung piety—that life of prayer—those unswerving admonitions to consider the vanity of earthly treasures, and to prepare for death—which had sounded so unreal amidst the perfumed elegancies of the chateau, came back now with a reality gained from experiment. The daily life of self-denial, the conversation garnished from Scripture and from the Fathers, had not, after all, been mere priestly affectations. In no symbolic manner, but, literally, he had "watched for the coming of his Lord," and "taken up the cross daily;" and so, when the cross was laid on him, and when the voice spoke which must speak to all, "The Master is come, and calleth for thee," he bore the burden and obeyed the summons unmoved.
Unmoved!—this was the fact that struck deep into the heart of Monsieur the Viscount, as he listened to Antoine's account of the Cure's imprisonment. What had astonished and overpowered his own undisciplined nature had not disturbed Monsieur the Preceptor. He had prayed in the chateau—he prayed in the prison. He had often spoken in the chateau of the softening and comforting influences of communion with the lower animals and with nature, and in the uncertainty of imprisonment he had tamed a toad. "None of these things had moved him," and in a storm of grief and admiration, Monsieur the Viscount bewailed the memory of his tutor.
"If he had only lived to teach me!"
But he was dead, and there was nothing for Monsieur the Viscount but to make the most of his example. This was not so easy to follow as he imagined. Things seemed to be different with him to what they had been with Monsieur the Preceptor. He had no lofty meditations, no ardent prayers, and calm and peace seemed more distant than ever. Monsieur the Viscount met, in short, with all those difficulties that the soul must meet with, which, in a moment of enthusiasm, has resolved upon a higher and a better way of life, and in moments of depression is perpetually tempted to forego that resolution. His prison life was, however, a pretty severe discipline, and he held on with struggles and prayers; and so, little by little, and day by day, as the time of his imprisonment went by, the consolations of religion became a daily strength against the fretfulness of imperious temper, the sickness of hope deferred, and the dark suggestions of despair.
The term of his imprisonment was a long one. Many prisoners came and went within the walls of the Abbaye, but Monsieur the Viscount still remained in his cell: indeed, he would have gained little by leaving it if he could have done so, as he would almost certainly have been retaken. As it was, Antoine on more than one occasion concealed him behind the bundles of firewood, and once or twice he narrowly escaped detection by less friendly officials. There were times when the guillotine seemed to him almost better than this long suspense: but while other heads passed to the block, his remained on his shoulders; and so weeks and even months went by. And during all this time, sleeping or waking, whenever he lay down upon his pallet, the toad crept up on to the stone, and kept watch over him with lustrous eyes.
Monsieur the Viscount hardly acknowledged to himself the affection with which he came to regard this ugly and despicable animal. The greater part of his regard for it he believed to be due to its connection with his tutor, and the rest he set down to the score of his own humanity, and took credit to himself accordingly; whereas in truth Monsieur Crapaud was of incalculable service to his new master, who would lie and chatter to him for hours, and almost forget his present discomfort in recalling past happiness, as he described the chateau, the gardens, the burly tutor, and beautiful Madame, or laughed over his childish remembrances of the toad's teeth in Claude Mignon's pocket; whilst Monsieur Crapaud sat well-bred and silent, with a world of comprehension in his fiery eyes. Whoever thinks this puerile must remember that my hero was a Frenchman, and a young Frenchman, with a prescriptive right to chatter for chattering's sake, and also that he had not a very highly cultivated mind of his own to converse with, even if the most highly cultivated intellect is ever a reliable resource against the terrors of solitary confinement.
Foolish or wise, however, Monsieur the Viscount's attachment strengthened daily; and one day something happened which showed his pet in a new light, and afforded him fresh amusement.
The prison was much infested with certain large black spiders, which crawled about the floor and walls; and, as Monsieur the Viscount was lying on his pallet, he saw one of these scramble up and over the stone on which sat Monsieur Crapaud. That good gentleman, whose eyes, till then, had been fixed as usual on his master, now turned his attention to the intruder. The spider, as if conscious of danger, had suddenly stopped still. Monsieur Crapaud gazed at it intently with his beautiful eyes, and bent himself slightly forward. So they remained for some seconds, then the spider turned round, and began suddenly to scramble away. At this instant Monsieur the Viscount saw his friend's eyes gleam with an intenser fire, his head was jerked forwards; it almost seemed as if something had been projected from his mouth, and drawn back again with the rapidity of lightning. Then Monsieur Crapaud resumed his position, drew in his head, and gazed mildly and sedately before him; but the spider was nowhere to be seen.
Monsieur the Viscount burst into a loud laugh.
"Eh, well! Monsieur," said he, "but this is not well-bred on your part. Who gave you leave to eat my spiders, and to bolt them in such an unmannerly way, moreover?"
In spite of this reproof Monsieur Crapaud looked in no way ashamed of himself, and I regret to state that hence-forward (with the partial humaneness of mankind in general), Monsieur the Viscount amused himself by catching the insects (which were only too plentiful) in an old oyster-shell, and setting them at liberty on the stone for the benefit of his friend. As for him, all appeared to be fish that came to his net—spiders and beetles, slugs and snails from the damp corners, flies, and wood-lice found on turning up the large stone, disappeared one after the other. The wood-lice were an especial amusement: when Monsieur the Viscount touched them, they shut up into tight little balls, and in this condition he removed them to the stone, and placed them like marbles in a row, Monsieur Crapaud watching the proceeding with rapt attention. After awhile the balls would slowly open and begin to crawl away; but he was a very active wood-louse indeed who escaped the suction of Monsieur Crapaud's tongue, as his eyes glowing with eager enjoyment, he bolted one after another, and Monsieur the Viscount clapped his hands and applauded.
The grated window was a fine field for spiders and other insects, and by piling up stones on the floor, Monsieur the Viscount contrived to scramble up to it, and fill his friend's oyster-shell with the prey.
One day, about a year and nine months after his first arrival at the prison, he climbed to the embrasure of the window, as usual, oyster-shell in hand. He always chose a time for this when he knew that the court would most probably be deserted, to avoid the danger of being recognized through the grating. He was therefore, not a little startled at being disturbed in his capture of a fat black spider by a sound of something bumping against the iron bars. On looking up, he saw that a string was dangling before the window with something attached to the end of it. He drew it in, and, as he did so, he fancied that he heard a distant sound of voices and clapped hands, as if from some window above. He proceeded to examine his prize, and found that it was a little round pincushion of sand, such as women use to polish their needles with, and that, apparently, it was used as a make-weight to ensure the steady descent of a neat little letter that was tied beside it, in company with a small lead pencil. The letter was directed to "The prisoner who finds this." Monsieur the Viscount opened it at once. This was the letter:
"In prison, 24th Prairial, year 2.
"Fellow-sufferer, who are you? how long have you been imprisoned? Be good enough to answer."
Monsieur the Viscount hesitated for a moment, and then determined to risk all. He tore off a bit of the paper, and with the little pencil hurriedly wrote this reply:—
"In secret, June 12, 1794.
"Louis Archambaud Jean-Marie Arnaud, Vicomte de B. supposed to have perished in the massacres of September, 1792. Keep my secret. I have been imprisoned a year and nine months. Who are you? how long have you been here?"
The letter was drawn up, and he watched anxiously for the reply. It came, and with it some sheets of blank paper.
"Monsieur,—We have the honor to reply to your inquiries and thank you for your frankness. Henri Edouard Clermont, Baron de St. Claire. Valerie de St. Claire. We have been here but two days. Accept our sympathy for your misfortunes."
Four words in this note seized at once upon Monsieur the Viscount's interest—Valerie de St. Claire:—and for some reasons which I do not pretend to explain, he decided that it was she who was the author of these epistles, and the demon of curiosity forthwith took possession of his mind. Who was she? was she old or young. And in which relation did she stand to Monsieur le Baron—that of wife, of sister, or of daughter? And from some equally inexplicable cause Monsieur the Viscount determined in his own mind that it was the latter. To make assurance doubly sure, however, he laid a trap to discover the real state of the case. He wrote a letter of thanks and sympathy, expressed with all the delicate chivalrous politeness of a nobleman of the old regime, and addressed it to Madame la Baronne. The plan succeeded. The next note he received contained these sentences:—"I am not the Baroness. Madame my mother is, alas! dead. I and my father are alone. He is ill; but thanks you, Monsieur, for your letters, which relieve the ennui of imprisonment. Are you alone?"
Monsieur the Viscount, as in duty bound, relieved the ennui of the Baron's captivity by another epistle. Before answering the last question, he turned round involuntarily and looked to where Monsieur Crapaud sat by the broken pitcher. The beautiful eyes were turned towards him, and Monsieur the Viscount took up his pencil, and wrote hastily, "I am not alone—I have a friend."
Henceforward the oyster-shell took a long time to fill, and patience seemed a harder virtue than ever. Perhaps the last fact had something to do with the rapid decline of Monsieur the Viscount's health. He became paler and weaker, and more fretful. His prayers were accompanied by greater mental struggles, and watered with more tears. He was, however, most positive in his assurances to Monsieur Crapaud that he knew the exact nature and cause of the malady that was consuming him. It resulted, he said, from the noxious and unwholesome condition of his cell; and he would entreat Antoine to have it swept out. After some difficulty the gaoler consented.
It was nearly a month since Monsieur the Viscount had first been startled by the appearance of the little pincushion. The stock of paper had long been exhausted. He had torn up his cambric ruffles to write upon, and Mademoiselle de St. Claire had made havoc of her pocket-handkerchiefs for the same purpose. The Viscount was feebler than ever, and Antoine became alarmed. The cell should be swept out the next morning. He would come himself, he said, and bring another man out of the town with him to help him, for the work was heavy, and he had a touch of rheumatism. The man was a stupid fellow from the country, who had only been a week in Paris; he had never heard of the Viscount, and Antoine would tell him that the prisoner was a certain young lawyer who had really died of fever in prison the day before. Monsieur the Viscount thanked him; and it was not till the next morning arrived, and he was expecting them every moment, that Monsieur the Viscount remembered the toad, and that he would without doubt be swept away with the rest in the general clearance. At first he thought that he would beg them to leave it, but some knowledge of the petty insults which that class of men heaped upon their prisoners made him feel that this would probably be only an additional reason for their taking the animal away. There was no place to hide it in, for they would go all round the room; unless—unless Monsieur the Viscount took it up in his hand. And this was just what he objected to do. All his old feelings of repugnance came back, he had not even got gloves on; his long white hands were bare, he could not touch a toad. It was true that the beast had amused him, and that he had chatted to it; but after all, this was a piece of childish folly—an unmanly way, to say the least, of relieving the tedium of captivity. What was Monsieur Crapaud but a very ugly (and most people said a venomous) reptile? To what a folly he had been condescending! With these thoughts, Monsieur the Viscount steeled himself against the glances of his topaz-eyed friend, and when the steps of thee men were heard upon the stairs, he did not move from the window where he had placed himself, with his back to the stone.
The steps came nearer and nearer, Monsieur the Viscount began to whistle;—the key was rattled into the lock, and Monsieur the Viscount heard a bit of bread fall, as the toad hastily descended to hide itself as usual in the corners. In a moment his resolution was gone; another second, and it would be too late. He dashed after the creature, picked it up, and when the men came in he was standing with his hands behind him, in which Monsieur Crapaud was quietly and safely seated.
The room was swept, and Antoine was preparing to go, when the other, who had been eyeing the prisoner suspiciously, stopped and said with a sharp sneer, "Does the citizen always preserve that position?"
"Not he," said the gaoler, good-naturedly. "He spends most of his time in bed, which saves his legs. Come along Francois."
"I shall not come," said the other, obstinately. "Let the citizen show me his hands."
"Plague take you!" said Antoine, in a whisper. "What sulky fit possesses you, my comrade! Let the poor wretch alone. What wouldst thou with his hands? Wait a little, and thou shalt have his head."
"We should have few heads or prisoners either, if thou hadst the care of them," said Francois sharply. "I say that the prisoner secretes something, and that I will see it. Show your hands, dog of an aristocrat!"
Monsieur the Viscount set his teeth to keep himself from speaking, and held out his hands in silence, toad and all.
Both the men started back with an exclamation, and Francois got behind his comrade, and swore over his shoulder.
Monsieur the Viscount stood upright and still, with a smile on his white face. "Behold, citizen, what I secrete, and what I desire to keep. Behold all that I have left to secrete or to desire! There is nothing more."
"Throw it down!" screamed Francois; "many a witch has been burnt for less—throw it down."
The color began to flood over Monsieur the Viscount's face; but still he spoke gently, and with bated breath. "If you wish me to suffer, citizen, let this be my witness that I have suffered. I must be very friendless to desire such a friend. I must be brought very low to ask such a favor. Let the Republic give me this."
"The Republic has one safe rule for aristocrats," said the other; "she gives them nothing but their keep till she pays for their shaving—once for all. She gave one of these dogs a few rags to dress a wound on his back with, and he made a rope of his dressings, and let himself down from the window. We will have no more such games. You may be training the beast to spit poison at good citizens. Throw it down and kill it."
Monsieur the Viscount made no reply. His hands had moved towards his breast, against which he was holding his golden-eyed friend. There are times in life when the brute creation contrasts favorably with the lords thereof, and this was one of them. It was hard to part just now.
Antoine, who had been internally cursing his own folly in bringing such a companion into the cell, now interfered. "If you are going to stay here to be bitten or spit at, Francois, my friend," said he, "I am not. Thou art zealous, my comrade, but dull as an owl. The Republic is far-sighted in her wisdom beyond thy coarse ideas, and has more ways of taking their heads from these aristocrats than one. Dost thou not see?" And he tapped his forehead significantly, and looked at the prisoner; and so, between talking and pushing, got his sulky companion out of the cell, and locked the door after them.
"And so, my friend—my friend!" said Monsieur the Viscount, tenderly, "we are safe once more; but it will not be for long, my Crapaud. Something tells me that I cannot much longer be overlooked. A little while, and I shall be gone; and thou wilt have, perchance, another master, when I am summoned before mine."
Monsieur the Viscount's misgivings were just. Francois, on whose stupidity Antoine had relied, was (as is not uncommon with people stupid in other respects) just clever enough to be mischievous. Antoine's evident alarm made him suspicious, and he began to talk about the too-elegant-looking young lawyer who was imprisoned "in secret," and permitted by the gaoler to keep venomous beasts. Antoine was examined and committed to one of his own cells, and Monsieur the Viscount was summoned before the revolutionary tribunal.
There was little need even for the scanty inquiry that in those days preceded sentence. In every line of his beautiful face, marred as it was by sickness and suffering—in the unconquerable dignity, which dirt and raggedness were powerless to hide, the fatal nobility of his birth and breeding were betrayed. When he returned to the anteroom, he did not positively know his fate; but in his mind there was a moral certainty that left him no hope.
The room was filled with other prisoners awaiting trial; and as he entered, his eyes wandered round it to see if there were any familiar faces. They fell upon two figures standing with their backs to him—a tall, fierce-looking man, who, despite his height and fierceness, had a restless, nervous despondency expressed in all his movements; and a young girl who leant on his arm as if for support, but whose steady quietude gave her more the air of a supporter. Without seeing their faces, and for no reasonable reason, Monsieur the Viscount decided with himself that they were the Baron and his daughter, and he begged the man who was conducting him, for a moment's delay. The man consented. France was becoming sick of unmitigated carnage, and even the executioners sometimes indulged in pity by way of a change.
As Monsieur the Viscount approached the two they turned round, and he saw her face—a very fair and very resolute one, with ashen hair and large eyes. In common with almost all the faces in that room, it was blanched with suffering; and it is fair to say, in common with many of them, it was pervaded by a lofty calm. Monsieur the Viscount never for an instant doubted his own conviction; he drew near and said in a low voice, "Mademoiselle de St. Claire!"
The Baron looked first fierce, and then alarmed. His daughter's face illumined; she turned her large eyes on the speaker, and said simply,
"Monsieur le Vicomte?"
The Baron apologized, commiserated, and sat down on a seat near, with a look of fretful despair; and his daughter and Monsieur the Viscount were left standing together. Monsieur the Viscount desired to say a great deal and could say very little. The moments went by and hardly a word had been spoken.
Valerie asked if he knew his fate.
"I have not heard it," he said; "but I am morally certain. There can be but one end in these days."
She sighed. "It is the same with us. And if you must suffer, Monsieur, I wish that we may suffer together. It would comfort my father—and me."
Her composure vexed him. Just, too, when he was sensible that the desire of life was making a few fierce struggles in his own breast.
"You seem to look forward to death with great cheerfulness, Mademoiselle."
The large eyes were raised to him with a look of surprise at the irritation of his tone.
"I think," she said gently, "that one does not look forward to, but beyond it." She stopped and hesitated, still watching his face, and then spoke hurriedly and diffidently:—
"Monsieur, it seems impertinent to make such suggestions to you, who have doubtless a full fund of consolation; but I remember, when a child, going to hear the preaching of a monk who was famous for his eloquence. He said that his text was from the Scriptures—it has been in my mind all to-day—'There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest.' The man is becoming impatient. Adieu! Monsieur. A thousand thanks and a thousand blessings."
She offered her cheek, on which there was not a ray of increased color, and Monsieur the Viscount stooped and kissed it, with a thick mist gathering in his eyes, through which he could not see her face.
So they met, and so they parted; and as Monsieur the Viscount went back to his prison, he flattered himself that the last link was broken for him in the chain of earthly interests.
When he reached the cell he was tired, and lay down, and in a few seconds a soft scrambling over the floor announced the return of Monsieur Crapaud from his hiding place. With one wrinkled leg after another he clambered on to the stone, and Monsieur the Viscount started when he saw him.
"Friend Crapaud! I had actually forgotten thee. I fancied I had said adieu for the last time;" and he gave a choked sigh, which Monsieur Crapaud could not be expected to understand. In about five minutes he sprang up suddenly. "Monsieur Crapaud, I have not long to live, and no time must be lost in making my will." Monsieur Crapaud was too wise to express any astonishment; and his master began to hunt for a tidy-looking stone (paper and cambric were both at an end). They were all rough and dirty; but necessity had made the Viscount inventive, and he took a couple and rubbed them together till he had polished both. Then he pulled out the little pencil, and for the next half hour wrote busily. When it was done he lay down, and read it to his friend. This was Monsieur the Viscount's last will and testament:—
"To my successor in this cell.
"To you whom Providence has chosen to be the inheritor of my sorrows and my captivity, I desire to make another bequest. There is in this prison a toad. He was tamed by a man (peace to his memory!) who tenanted this cell before me. He has been my friend and companion for nearly two years of sad imprisonment. He has sat by my bedside, fed from my hand, and shared all my confidence. He is ugly, but he has beautiful eyes; he is silent, but he is attentive; he is a brute, but I wish the men of France were in this respect more his superiors! He is very faithful. May you never have a worse friend! He feeds upon insects, which I have been accustomed to procure for him. Be kind to him; he will repay it. Like other men, I bequeath what I would take with me if I could.
"Fellow-sufferer, adieu! God comfort you as He has comforted me! The sorrows of this life are sharp but short; the joys of the next life are eternal. Think some times on him who commends his friend to your pity, and himself to your prayers.
"This is the last will and testament of Louis Archambaud Jean-Marie Arnaud, Vicomte de B——."
Monsieur the Viscount's last will and testament was with difficulty squeezed into the surface of the larger of the stones. Then he hid it where the priest had hid his bequest long ago, and then lay down to dream of Monsieur the Preceptor, and that they had met at last.
The next day was one of anxious suspense. In the evening, as usual, a list of those who were to be guillotined next morning, was brought into the prison; and Monsieur the Viscount begged for a sight of it. It was brought to him. First on the list was Antoine! Halfway down was his own name, "Louis de B—," and a little lower his fascinated gaze fell upon names that stirred his heart with such a passion of regret as he had fancied it would never feel again, "Henri de St. Claire, Valerie de St. Claire."
Her eyes seemed to shine on him from the gathering twilight, and her calm voice to echo in his ears. "It has been in my mind all to-day. There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest."
There! He buried his face and prayed.
He was disturbed by the unlocking of the door, and the new gaoler appeared with Antoine! The poor wretch seemed overpowered by terror. He had begged to be imprisoned for this last night with Monsieur the Viscount. It was only a matter of a few hours, as they were to die at daybreak, and his request was granted.
Antoine's entrance turned the current of Monsieur the Viscount's thoughts. No more selfish reflections now. He must comfort this poor creature, of whose death he was to be the unintentional cause. Antoine's first anxiety was that Monsieur the Viscount should bear witness that the gaoler had treated him kindly, and so earned the blessing and not the curse of Monsieur le Cure, whose powerful presence seemed to haunt him still. On this score he was soon set at rest, and then came the old, old story. He had been but a bad man. If his life were to come over again, he would do differently. Did Monsieur the Viscount think that there was any hope?
Would Monsieur the Viscount have recognized himself, could he, two years ago, have seen himself as he was now? Kneeling by that rough, uncultivated figure, and pleading with all the eloquence that he could master to that rough uncultivated heart, the great Truths of Christianity,—so great and few and simple in their application to our needs! The violet eyes had never appealed more tenderly, the soft voice had never been softer than now, as he strove to explain to this ignorant soul, the cardinal doctrines of Faith and Repentance, and Charity, with an earnestness that was perhaps more effectual than his preaching.
Monsieur the Viscount was quite as much astonished as flattered by the success of his instructions. The faith on which he had laid hold with such mortal struggles, seemed almost to "come natural" (as people say) to Antoine. With abundant tears, he professed the deepest penitence for his past life, at the same time that he accepted the doctrine of the Atonement as a natural remedy, and never seemed to have a doubt in the Infinite Mercy that should cover his infinite guilt.
It was all so orthodox that even if he had doubted (which he did not) the sincerity of the gaoler's contrition and belief, Monsieur the Viscount could have done nothing but envy the easy nature of Antoine's convictions. He forgot the difference of their respective capabilities!
When the night was far advanced the men rose from their knees, and Monsieur the Viscount persuaded Antoine to lie down on his pallet, and when the gaoler's heavy breathing told that he was asleep, Monsieur the Viscount felt relieved to be alone once more; alone, except for Monsieur Crapaud, whose round fiery eyes were open as usual.
The simplicity with which he had been obliged to explain the truths of Divine Love to Antoine, was of signal service to Monsieur the Viscount himself. It left him no excuse for those intricacies of doubt, with which refined minds too often torture themselves; and as he paced feebly up and down the cell, all the long-withheld peace for which he had striven since his imprisonment seemed to flood into his soul. How blessed—how undeservedly blessed—was his fate! Who or what was he that after such short, such mitigated sufferings, the crown of victory should be so near? The way had seemed long to come, it was short to look back upon, and now the golden gates were almost reached, the everlasting doors were open. A few more hours, and then—! and as Monsieur the Viscount buried his worn face in his hands, the tears that trickled from his fingers were literally tears of joy.
He groped his way to the stone, pushed some straw close to it, and lay down on the ground to rest, watched by Monsieur Crapaud's fiery eyes. And as he lay, faces seemed to him to rise out of the darkness, to take the form and features of the face of the Priest, and to gaze at him with unutterable benediction. And in his mind, like some familiar piece of music, awoke the words that had been written on the fly-leaf of the little book; coming back, sleepily and dreamily, over and over again—
"Souvenez-vous du Sauveur! Souvenez-vous du Sauveur!" (Remember the Saviour!)
In that remembrance he fell asleep.
Monsieur the Viscount's sleep for some hours was without a dream. Then it began to be disturbed by that uneasy consciousness of sleeping too long, which enables some people to awake at whatever hour they have resolved upon. At last it became intolerable, and wearied as he was, he awoke. It was broad daylight, and Antoine was snoring beside him. Surely the cart would come soon, the executions were generally at an early hour. But time went on, and no one came, and Antoine awoke. The hours of suspense passed heavily, but at last there were steps and a key rattled into the lock. The door opened, and the gaoler appeared with a jug of milk and a loaf. With a strange smile he set them down.
"A good appetite to you, citizens."
Antoine flew on him. "Comrade! we used to be friends. Tell me, what is it? Is the execution deferred?"
"The execution has taken place at last," said the other, significantly; "Robespierre is dead!" and he vanished.
Antoine uttered a shriek of joy. He wept, he laughed, he cut capers, and flinging himself at Monsieur the Viscount's feet, he kissed them rapturously. When he raised his eyes to Monsieur the Viscount's face, his transports moderated. The last shock had been too much, he seemed almost in a stupor. Antoine got him on the pallet, dragged the blanket over him, broke the bread into the milk, and played the nurse once more.
On that day thousands of prisoners in the city of Paris alone awoke from the shadow of death to the hope of life. The Reign of Terror was ended!
It was a year of grace early in the present century.
We are again in the beautiful country of beautiful France. It is the chateau once more. It is the same, but changed. The unapproachable elegance, the inviolable security, have witnessed invasion. The right wing of the chateau is in ruins, with traces of fire upon the blackened walls; while here and there, a broken statue or a roofless temple, are sad memorials of the Revolution. Within the restored part of the chateau, however, all looks well. Monsieur the Viscount has been fortunate, and if not so rich a man as his father, has yet regained enough of his property to live with comfort, and, as he thinks, luxury. The long rooms are little less elegant than in former days, and Madame the present Viscountess's boudoir is a model of taste. Not far from it is another room, to which it forms a singular contrast. This room belongs to Monsieur the Viscount. It is small, with one window. The floor and walls are bare, and it contains no furniture; but on the floor is a worn-out pallet, by which lies a stone, and on that a broken pitcher, and in a little frame against the wall is preserved a crumpled bit of paper like the fly-leaf of some little book, on which is a half-effaced inscription, which can be deciphered by Monsieur the Viscount if by no one else. Above the window is written in large letters, a date and the word REMEMBER. Monsieur the Viscount is not likely to forget, but he is afraid of himself and of prosperity lest it should spoil him.
It is evening, and Monsieur the Viscount is strolling along the terrace with Madame on his arm. He has only one to offer her, for where the other should be an empty sleeve is pinned to his breast, on which a bit of ribbon is stirred by the breeze. Monsieur the Viscount has not been idle since we saw him last; the faith that taught him to die, has taught him also how to live,—an honorable, useful life.
It is evening, and the air comes up perfumed from a bed of violets by which Monsieur the Viscount is kneeling. Madame (who has a fair face and ashen hair) stands by him with her little hand on his shoulder and her large eyes upon the violets.
"My friend! My friend! My friend!" It is Monsieur the Viscount's voice, and at the sound of it, there is a rustle among the violets that sends the perfume high into the air. Then from the parted leaves come forth first a dirty wrinkled leg, then a dirty wrinkled head with gleaming eyes, and Monsieur Crapaud crawls with self-satisfied dignity on to Monsieur the Viscount's outstretched hand.
So they stay laughing and chatting, and then Monsieur the Viscount bids his friend good-night, and holds him towards Madame, that she may do the same. But Madame (who did not enjoy Monsieur Crapaud's society in prison) cannot be induced to do more than scratch his head delicately with the tip of her white finger. But she respects him greatly, at a distance, she says. Then they go back along the terrace, and are met by a man-servant in Monsieur the Viscount's livery. Is it possible that this is Antoine, with his shock head covered with powder?
Yes; that grating voice which no mental change avails to subdue, is his, and he announces that Monsieur le Cure has arrived. It is the old Cure of the village (who has survived the troubles of the Revolution), and many are the evenings he spends at the chateau, and many the times in which the closing acts of a noble life are recounted to him, the life of his old friend whom he hopes ere long to see,—of Monsieur the Preceptor. He is kindly welcomed by Monsieur and by Madame, and they pass on together into the chateau. And when Monsieur the Viscount's steps have ceased to echo from the terrace, Monsieur Crapaud buries himself once more among the violets.
* * * * *
Monsieur the Viscount is dead, and Madame sleeps also at his side; and their possessions have descended to their son.
Not the least valued among them, is a case with a glass front and sides, in which, seated upon a stone is the body of a toad stuffed with exquisite skill, from whose head gleam eyes of genuine topaz. Above it in letters of gold is a date, and this inscription:—
"MONSIEUR THE VISCOUNT'S FRIEND." ADIEU!
THE YEW-LANE GHOSTS.
"Cowards are cruel."
This story begins on a fine autumn afternoon, when at the end of a field over which the shadows of a few wayside trees were stalking like long thin giants, a man and a boy sat side by side upon a stile. They were not a happy looking pair. The boy looked uncomfortable, because he wanted to get away, and dared not go. The man looked uncomfortable also; but then no one had ever seen him look otherwise, which was the more strange as he never professed to have any object in life but his own pleasure and gratification. Not troubling himself with any consideration of law or principle—of his own duty or other people's comfort—he had consistently spent his whole time and energies in trying to be jolly; and though now a grown-up young man, had so far had every appearance of failing in the attempt. From this it will be seen that he was not the most estimable of characters, and we shall have no more to do with him than we can help; but as he must appear in the story, he may as well be described.
If constant self-indulgence had answered as well as it should have done, he would have been a fine-looking young man; as it was, the habits of his life were fast destroying his appearance. His hair would have been golden if it had been kept clean. His figure was tall and strong; but the custom of slinking about places where he had no business to be, and lounging in corners where he had nothing to do, had given it such a hopeless slouch, that for the matter of beauty he might almost as well have been knock-kneed. His eyes would have been handsome if the lids had been less red; and if he had ever looked you in the face, you would have seen that they were blue. His complexion was fair by nature, and discolored by drink. His manner was something between a sneak and a swagger, and he generally wore his cap a-one-side, carried his hands in his pockets, and a short stick under his arm, and whistled when any one passed him. His chief characteristic perhaps was a habit he had of kicking. Indoors he kicked the furniture; in the road he kicked the stones; if he lounged against a wall he kicked it; he kicked all animals, and such human beings as he felt sure would not kick him again.
It should be said here that he had once announced his intention of "turning steady, and settling, and getting wed." The object of his choice was the prettiest girl in the village, and was as good as she was pretty. To say the truth, the time had been when Bessy had not felt unkindly towards the yellow-haired lad; but his conduct had long put a gulf between them, which only the conceit of a scamp would have attempted to pass. However, he flattered himself that he "knew what the lasses meant when they said no;" and on the strength of this knowledge he presumed far enough to elicit a rebuff so hearty and unmistakable, that for a week he was the laughing-stock of the village. There was no mistake this time as to what "no" meant; his admiration turned to a hatred almost as intense, and he went faster "to the bad" than ever.
It was Bessy's little brother who sat by him on the stile; "Beauty Bill," as he was called, from the large share he possessed of the family good looks. The lad was one of those people who seem born to be favorites. He was handsome and merry and intelligent; and being well brought up, was well-conducted and amiable—the pride and pet of the village. Why did Mother Muggins of the shop let the goody side of her scales of justice drop the lower by one lollipop for Bill than for any other lad, and exempt him by unwonted smiles from her general anathema on the urchin race? There were other honest boys in the parish who paid for their treacle-sticks in sterling copper of the realm! The very roughs of the village were proud of him, and would have showed their good nature in ways little to his benefit, had not his father kept a somewhat severe watch upon his habits and conduct. Indeed, good parents and a strict home counterbalanced the evils of popularity with Beauty Bill, and on the whole he was little spoilt, and well deserved the favor he met with. It was under cover of friendly patronage that his companion was now detaining him; but all the circumstances considered, Bill felt more suspicious than gratified, and wished Bully Tom anywhere but where he was.
The man threw out one leg before him like the pendulum of a clock—
"Night school's opened, eh?" he inquired; and back swung the pendulum against Bill's shins.
"Yes;" and the boy screwed his legs on one side.
"You don't go, do you?"
"Yes, I do," said Bill, trying not to feel ashamed of the fact. "Father can't spare me to the day-school now, so our Bessy persuaded him to let me go at nights."
Bully Tom's face looked a shade darker, and the pendulum took a swing which it was fortunate the lad avoided; but the conversation continued with every appearance of civility.
"You come back by Yew-lane, I suppose?"
"Why, there's no one lives your way but old Johnson; you must come back alone?"
"Of course I do," said Bill, beginning to feel vaguely uncomfortable.
"It must be dark now before school looses?" was the next inquiry; and the boy's discomfort increased, he hardly knew why, as he answered—
"There's a moon."
"So there is," said Bully Tom, in a tone of polite assent; "and there's a weathercock on the church steeple; but I never heard of either of 'em coming down to help a body, whatever happened."
Bill's discomfort had become alarm.
"Why, what could happen?" he asked. "I don't understand you."
His companion whistled, looked up in the air, and kicked vigorously, but said nothing. Bill was not extraordinarily brave, but he had a fair amount both of spirit and sense; and having a shrewd suspicion that Bully Tom was trying to frighten him, he almost made up his mind to run off then and there. Curiosity, however, and a vague alarm which he could not throw off, made him stay for a little more information.
"I wish you'd out with it!" he exclaimed impatiently. "What could happen? No one ever comes along Yew-lane; and if they did, they wouldn't hurt me."
"I know no one ever comes near it when they can help it," was the reply; "so to be sure you couldn't get set upon; and a pious lad of your sort wouldn't mind no other kind. Not like ghosts or anything of that."
And Bully Tom looked round at his companion; a fact disagreeable from its rarity.
"I don't believe in ghosts," said Bill, stoutly.
"Of course you don't," sneered his tormentor; "you're too well educated. Some people does, though. I suppose them that has seen them does. Some people thinks that murdered men walk. P'raps some people thinks the man as was murdered in Yew-lane walks."
"What man?" gasped Bill, feeling very chilly down the spine.
"Him that was riding by the cross roads and dragged into Yew-lane, and his head cut off and never found, and his body buried in the churchyard," said Bully Tom, with a rush of superior information; "and all I know is, if I thought he walked in Yew-lane, or any other lane, I wouldn't go within five mile of it after dusk—that's all. But then I'm not book-larned."
The two last statements were true if nothing else was that the man had said; and after holding up his feet and examining his boots with his head a-one-side, as if considering their probable efficiency against flesh and blood, he slid from his perch, and "loafed" slowly up the street, whistling and kicking the stones as he went along. As to Beauty Bill, he fled home as fast as his legs would carry him. By the door stood Bessy, washing some clothes, who turned her pretty face as he came up.
"You're late, Bill," she said. "Go in and get your tea, it's set out. It's night-school night, thou knows, and Master Arthur always likes his class to time." He lingered, and she continued—"John Gardener was down this afternoon about some potatoes, and he says Master Arthur is expecting a friend."
Bill did not heed this piece of news, any more than the slight flush on his sister's face as she delivered it; he was wondering whether what Bully Tom said was mere invention to frighten him, or whether there was any truth in it.
"Bessy!" he said, "was there a man ever murdered in Yew-lane?"
Bessy was occupied with her own thoughts, and did not notice the anxiety of the question.
"I believe there was," she answered carelessly, "somewhere about there. It's a hundred years ago or more. There's an old gravestone over him in the churchyard by the wall, with an odd verse on it. They say the parish clerk wrote it. But get your tea, or you'll be late, and father'll be angry;" and Bessy took up her tub and departed.
Poor Bill! Then it was too true. He began to pull up his trousers and look at his grazed legs; and the thoughts of his aching shins, Bully Tom's cruelty, the unavoidable night-school, and the possible ghost, were too much for him, and he burst into tears.
"There are birds out on the bushes, In the meadows lies the lamb; How I wonder if they're ever Half as frightened as I am?"
C. F. ALEXANDER.
The night-school was drawing to a close. The attendance had been good, and the room looked cheerful. In one corner the Rector was teaching a group of grown-up men, who (better late than never) were zealously learning to read; in another the schoolmaster was flourishing his stick before a map as he concluded his lesson in geography. By the fire sat Master Arthur, the Rector's son, surrounded by his class, and in front of him stood Beauty Bill. Master Arthur was very popular with the people, especially with his pupils. The boys were anxious to get into his class, and loath to leave it. They admired his great height, his merry laugh, the variety of walking-sticks he brought with him, and his very funny way of explaining pictures. He was not a very methodical teacher, and was rather apt to give unexpected lessons on subjects in which he happened just then to be interested himself; but he had a clear simple way of explaining anything, which impressed it on the memory, and he took a great deal of pains in his own way. Bill was especially devoted to him. He often wished that Master Arthur could get very rich, and take him for his man-servant; he thought he should like to brush his clothes and take care of his sticks. He had a great interest in the growth of his mustache and whiskers. For some time past Master Arthur had had a trick of pulling at his upper lip while he was teaching; which occasionally provoked a whisper of "Moostarch, guvernor!" between two unruly members of his class; but never till to-night had Bill seen anything in that line which answered his expectations. Now, however, as he stood before the young gentleman, the fire-light fell on such a distinct growth of hair, that Bill's interest became absorbed to the exclusion of all but the most perfunctory attention to the lesson on hand. Would Master Arthur grow a beard? Would his mustache be short like the pictures of Prince Albert, or long and pointed like that of some other great man whose portrait he had seen in the papers? He was calculating on the probable effect of either style, when the order was given to put away books, and then the thought which had been for a time diverted came back again,—his walk home.
Poor Bill! his fears returned with double force from having been for a while forgotten. He dawdled over the books, he hunted in wrong places for his cap and comforter, he lingered till the last boy had clattered through the door-way and left him with the group of elders who closed the proceedings and locked up the school. But after this, further delay was impossible. The whole party moved out into the moonlight, and the Rector and his son, the schoolmaster and the teachers, commenced a sedate parish gossip, while Bill trotted behind, wondering whether any possible or impossible business would take one of them his way. But when the turning-point was reached, the Rector destroyed all his hopes.
"None of us go your way, I think," said he, as lightly as if there were no grievance in the case; "however, it's not far. Good-night, my boy!"
And so with a volley of good-nights, the cheerful voices passed on up the village. Bill stood till they had quite died away, and then, when all was silent, he turned into the lane.
The cold night-wind crept into his ears, and made uncomfortable noises among the trees, and blew clouds over the face of the moon. He almost wished that there were no moon. The shifting shadows under his feet, and the sudden patches of light on unexpected objects, startled him, and he thought he should have felt less frightened if it had been quite dark. Once he ran for a bit, then he resolved to be brave, then to be reasonable; he repeated scraps of lessons, hymns, and last Sunday's Collect, to divert and compose his mind; and as this plan seemed to answer, he determined to go through the Catechism, both question and answer, which he hoped might carry him to the end of his unpleasant journey. He had just asked himself a question with considerable dignity, and was about to reply, when a sudden gleam of moonlight lit up a round object in the ditch. Bill's heart seemed to grow cold, and he thought his senses would have forsaken him. Could this be the head of—? No! on nearer inspection it proved to be only a turnip; and when one came to think of it, that would have been rather a conspicuous place for the murdered man's skull to have been lost in for so many years.
My hero must not be ridiculed too much for his fears. The terrors that visit childhood are not the less real and overpowering from being unreasonable; and to excite them is wanton cruelty. Moreover, he was but a little lad, and had been up and down Yew-lane both in daylight and dark without any fears, till Bully Tom's tormenting suggestions had alarmed him. Even now, as he reached the avenue of yews from which the lane took its name, and passed into their gloomy shade, he tried to be brave. He tried to think of the good God Who takes care of His children, and to Whom the darkness and the light are both alike. He thought of all he had been taught about angels, and wondered if one were near him now, and wished that he could see him, as Abraham and other good people had seen angels. In short, the poor lad did his best to apply what he had been taught to the present emergency, and very likely had he not done so he would have been worse; but as it was, he was not a little frightened, as we shall see.
Yew-lane—cool and dark when the hottest sunshine lay beyond it—a loitering-place for lovers—the dearly loved play-place of generations of children on sultry summer days—looked very grim and vault-like, with narrow streaks of moonlight peeping in at rare intervals to make the darkness to be felt! Moreover, it was really damp and cold, which is not favorable to courage. At a certain point Yew-lane skirted a corner of the churchyard, and was itself crossed by another road, thus forming a "four-want-way," where suicides were buried in times past. This road was the old highroad, where the mail-coach ran, and along which, on such a night as this, a hundred years ago, a horseman rode his last ride. As he passed the church on his fatal journey, did anything warn him how soon his headless body would be buried beneath its shadow? Bill wondered. He wondered if he were old or young—what sort of a horse he rode—whose cruel hands dragged him into the shadow of the yews and slew him, and where his head was hidden and why. Did the church look just the same, and the moon shine just as brightly, that night a century ago? Bully Tom was right. The weathercock and the moon sit still, whatever happens. The boy watched the gleaming highroad as it lay beyond the dark aisle of trees, till he fancied he could hear the footfalls of the solitary horse—and yet no! The sound was not upon the hard road, but nearer; it was not the clatter of hoofs, but something—and a rustle—and then Bill's blood seemed to freeze in his veins, as he saw a white figure, wrapped in what seemed to be a shroud, glide out of the shadow of the yews and move slowly down the lane. When it reached the road it paused, raised a long arm warningly towards him for a moment, and then vanished in the direction of the churchyard.
What would have been the consequence of the intense fright the poor lad experienced is more than any one can say, if at that moment the church clock had not begun to strike nine. The familiar sound, close in his ears, roused him from the first shock, and before it had ceased he contrived to make a desperate rally of his courage, flew over the road, and crossed the two fields that now lay between him and home without looking behind him.
"It was to her a real grief of heart, acute, as children's sorrows often are.
"We beheld this from the opposite windows—and, seen thus from a little distance, how many of our own and of other people's sorrows might not seem equally trivial, and equally deserving of ridicule!"
HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN.
When Bill got home he found the household busy with a much more practical subject than that of ghosts and haunted yew-trees. Bessy was ill. She had felt a pain in her side all the day, which towards night had become so violent that the doctor was sent for, who had pronounced it pleurisy, and had sent her to bed. He was just coming down-stairs as Bill burst into the house. The mother was too much occupied about her daughter to notice the lad's condition; but the doctor's sharp eyes saw that something was amiss, and he at once inquired what it was. Bill hammered and stammered, and stopped short. The doctor was such a tall, stout, comfortable-looking man, he looked as if he couldn't believe in ghosts. A slight frown however had come over his comfortable face, and he laid two fingers on Bill's wrist as he repeated his question.
"Please sir," said Bill, "I've seen—"
"A mad dog?" suggested the doctor.
"A mad bull?"
"No, sir," said Bill, desperately, "I've seen a ghost."
The doctor exploded into a fit of laughter, and looked more comfortable than ever.
"And where did we see the ghost?" he inquired in a professional voice, as he took up his coat-tails and warmed himself at the fire.
"In Yew-lane, sir; and I'm sure I did see it," said Bill, half crying; "it was all in white, and beckoned me."
"That's to say, you saw a white gravestone, or a tree in the moonlight, or one of your classmates dressed up in a table-cloth. It was all moonshine, depend upon it," said the doctor, with a chuckle at his own joke; "take my advice, my boy, and don't give way to foolish fancies."
At this point the mother spoke—
"If his father knew, sir, as he'd got any such fads in his head, he'd soon flog 'em out of him."
"His father is a very good one," said the doctor; "a little too fond of the stick, perhaps. There," he added good-naturedly, slipping sixpence into Bill's hand, "get a new knife, my boy, and cut a good thick stick, and the next ghost you meet, lay hold of him and let him taste it."
Bill tried to thank him, but somehow his voice was choked, and the doctor turned to his mother.
"The boy has been frightened," he said, "and is upset. Give him some supper, and put him to bed." And the good gentleman departed.
Bill was duly feasted and sent to rest. His mother did not mention the matter to her husband, as she knew he would be angry; and occupied with real anxiety for her daughter, she soon forgot it herself. Consequently, the next night-school night she sent Bill to "clean himself," hurried on his tea, and packed him off, just as if nothing had happened. The boy's feelings since the night of the apparition had not been enviable. He could neither eat nor sleep. As he lay in bed at night, he kept his face covered with the clothes, dreading that if he peeped out into the room the phantom of the murdered horseman would beckon to him from the dark corners. Lying so till the dawn broke and the cocks began to crow, he would then look cautiously forth, and seeing by the gray light that the corners were empty, and that the figure by the door was not the Yew-lane Ghost, but his mother's faded print dress hanging on a nail, would drop his head and fall wearily asleep. The day was no better, for each hour brought him nearer to the next night-school; and Bessy's illness made his mother so busy that he never could find the right moment to ask her sympathy for his fears, and still less could he feel himself able to overcome them. And so the night-school came round again, and there he sat, gulping down a few mouthfuls of food, and wondering how he should begin to tell his mother that he neither dare, could, nor would, go down Yew-lane again at night. He had just opened his lips when the father came in, and asked in a loud voice "why Bill was not off." This effectually put a stop to any confidences, and the boy ran out of the house. Not, however, to school. He made one or two desperate efforts at determination, and then gave up altogether. He could not go!
He was wondering what he should do with himself, when it struck him that he would go while it was daylight and look for the grave with the odd verse of which Bessy had spoken. He had no difficulty in finding it. It was marked by a large ugly stone, on which the inscription was green, and in some places almost effaced.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY. OF EPHRAIM GARNETT—
He had read so far when a voice close by him said—
"You'll be late for school, young chap."
Bill looked up, and to his horror beheld Bully Tom standing in the road and kicking the churchyard wall.
"Aren't you going!" he asked, as Bill did not speak.
"Not to-night," said Bill, with crimson cheeks.
"Larking, eh?" said Bully Tom. "My eyes, won't your father give it you!" and he began to move off.
"Stop!" shouted Bill in an agony; "don't tell him, Tom. That would be a dirty trick. I'll go next time, I will indeed; I can't go to-night. I'm not larking, I'm scared. You won't tell?"
"Not this time, maybe," was the reply; "but I wouldn't be in your shoes if you play this game next night;" and off he went.
Bill thought it well to quit the churchyard at once for some place where he was not likely to be seen; he had never played truant before, and for the next hour or two was thoroughly miserable as he slunk about the premises of a neighboring farm, and finally took refuge in a shed, and began to consider his position. He would remain hidden till nine o'clock, and then go home. If nothing were said, well and good; unless some accident should afterwards betray him. But if his mother asked any questions about the school? He dared not, and he would not, tell a lie; and yet what would be the result of the truth coming out? There could be no doubt that his father would beat him. Bill thought again, and decided that he could bear a thrashing, but not the sight of the Yew-lane Ghost; so he remained where he was, wondering how it would be, and how he should get over the next school-night when it came. The prospect was so hopeless, and the poor lad so wearied with anxiety and wakeful nights, that he was almost asleep when he was startled by the church clock striking nine; and jumping up he ran home. His heart beat heavily as he crossed the threshold; but his mother was still absorbed by thoughts of Bessy, and he went to bed unquestioned. The next day too passed over without any awkward remarks, which was very satisfactory; but then night-school day came again, and Bill felt that he was in a worse position than ever. He had played truant once with success; but he was aware that it would not do a second time. Bully Tom was spiteful, and Master Arthur might come to "look up" his recreant pupil, and then Bill's father would know all.
On the morning of the much-dreaded day, his mother sent him up to the Rectory to fetch some little delicacy that had been promised for Bessy's dinner. He generally found it rather amusing to go there. He liked to peep at the pretty garden, to look out for Master Arthur, and to sit in the kitchen and watch the cook, and wonder what she did with all the dishes and bright things that decorated the walls. To-day all was quite different. He avoided the gardens, he was afraid of being seen by his teacher, and though cook had an unusual display of pots and pans in operation, he sat in the corner of the kitchen indifferent to everything but the thought of the Yew-lane Ghost. The dinner for Bessy was put between two saucers, and as cook gave it into his hands she asked kindly after his sister, and added—
"You don't look over-well yourself, lad! What's amiss?"
Bill answered that he was quite well, and hurried out of the house to avoid further inquiries. He was becoming afraid of every one! As he passed the garden he thought of the gardener, and wondered if he would help him. He was very young and very good-natured; he had taken of late to coming to see Bessy, and Bill had his own ideas upon that point; finally, he had a small class at the night-school. Bill wondered whether if he screwed up his courage to-night to go, John Gardener would walk back with him for the pleasure of hearing the latest accounts of Bessy. But all hopes of this sort were cut off by Master Arthur's voice shouting to him from the garden—
"Hi there! I want you, Willie! Come here, I say."
Bill ran through the evergreens, and there among the flower-beds in the sunshine he saw—first, John Gardener driving a mowing-machine over the velvety grass under Master Arthur's very nose, so there was no getting a private interview with him. Secondly, Master Arthur himself, sitting on the ground with his terrier in his lap, directing the proceedings by means of a donkey-headed stick with elaborately carved ears; and thirdly Master Arthur's friend.
Now little bits of gossip will fly; and it had been heard in the dining-room, and conveyed by the parlor-maid to the kitchen, and passed from the kitchen into the village, that Master Arthur's friend was a very clever young gentleman; consequently Beauty Bill had been very anxious to see him. As, however, the clever young gentleman was lying on his back on the grass, with his hat flattened over his face to keep out the sun, and an open book lying on its face upon his waistcoat to keep the place, and otherwise quite immovable, and very like other young gentlemen, Bill did not feel much the wiser for looking at him. He had a better view of him soon, however, for Master Arthur began to poke his friend's legs with the donkey-headed stick, and to exhort him to get up.
"Hi! Bartram, get up! Here's my prime pupil. See what we can turn out. You may examine him if you like—Willie! this gentleman is a very clever gentleman, so you must keep your wits about you. He'll put questions to you, I can tell you! There's as much difference between his head and mine, as between mine and the head of this stick." And Master Arthur flourished his "one-legged donkey," as he called it, in the air, and added, "Bertram! you lazy lout! will you get up and take an interest in my humble efforts for the good of my fellow-creatures?"
Thus adjured, Mr. Bartram sat up with a jerk which threw his book on to his boots, and his hat after it, and looked at Bill. Now Bill and the gardener had both been grinning, as they always did at Master Arthur's funny speeches; but when Bill found the clever gentleman looking at him, he straightened his face very quickly. The gentleman was not at all like his friend ("nothing near so handsome," Bill reported at home), and he had such a large prominent forehead that he looked as if he were bald. When he had sat up, he suddenly screwed up his eyes in a very peculiar way, pulled out a double gold eye-glass, fixed it on his nose, and stared through it for a second; after which his eyes unexpectedly opened to their full extent (they were not small ones), and took a sharp survey of Bill over the top of his spectacles, and this ended, he lay back on his elbow without speaking. Bill then and there decided that Mr. Bartram was very proud, rather mad, and the most disagreeable gentleman he ever saw; and he felt sure could see as well as he (Bill) could, and only wore spectacles out of a peculiar kind of pride and vain-glory which he could not exactly specify. Master Arthur seemed to think, at any rate, that he was not very civil, and began at once to talk to the boy himself.
"Why were you not at school last time, Willie? Couldn't your mother spare you?"
"Then why didn't you come?" said Master Arthur, in evident astonishment.
Poor Bill! He stammered as he had stammered before the doctor, and finally gasped—
"Please, sir, I was scared."
"Scared? What of?"
"Ghosts," murmured Bill in a very ghostly whisper. Mr. Bartram raised himself a little. Master Arthur seemed confounded.
"Why, you little goose! How is it you never were afraid before?"
"Please, sir, I saw one the other night."
Mr. Bartram took another look over the top of his eye-glass and sat bolt upright, and John Gardener stayed his machine and listened, while poor Bill told the whole story of the Yew-lane Ghost.
When it was finished, the gardener, who was behind Master Arthur, said—
"I've heard something of this, sir, in the village," and then added more which Bill could not hear.
"Eh, what?" said Master Arthur. "Willie, take the machine and drive about the garden a bit wherever you like.—Now John."
Willie did not at all like being sent away at this interesting point. Another time he would have enjoyed driving over the short grass, and seeing it jump up like a little green fountain in front of him; but now his whole mind was absorbed by the few words he caught at intervals of the conversation going on between John and the young gentleman. What could it mean? Mr. Bartram seemed to have awakened to extraordinary energy, and was talking rapidly. Bill heard the words "lime-light" and "large sheet," and thought they must be planning a magic-lantern exhibition, but was puzzled by catching the word "turnip." At last, as he was rounding the corner of the bed of geraniums, he distinctly heard Mr. Bartram ask,—
"They cut the man's head off, didn't they?"
Then they were talking about the ghost, after all! Bill gave the machine a jerk, and to his dismay sliced a branch off one of the geraniums. What was to be done? He must tell Master Arthur, but he could not interrupt him just now; so on he drove, feeling very much dispirited, and by no means cheered by hearing shouts of laughter from the party on the grass. When one is puzzled and out of spirits, it is no consolation to hear other people laughing over a private joke; moreover, Bill felt that if they were still on the subject of the murdered man and his ghost, their merriment was very unsuitable: Whatever was going on, it was quite evident that Mr. Bartram was the leading spirit of it, for Bill could see Master Arthur waving the one-legged donkey in an ecstasy, as he clapped his friend on the back till the eye-glass danced upon his nose. At last Mr. Bartram threw himself back as if closing a discussion, and said loud enough for Bill to hear—
"You never heard of a bully who wasn't a coward."
Bill thought of Bully Tom, and how he had said he dared not risk the chance of meeting with a ghost, and began to think that this was a clever young gentleman, after all. Just then Master Arthur called to him, and he took the bit of broken geranium and went.
"Oh, Willie!" said Master Arthur, "we've been talking over your misfortunes—geranium? fiddlesticks! put it in your button-hole—your misfortunes, I say, and for to-night at any rate we intend to help you out of them. John—ahem!—will be—ahem!—engaged to-night, and unable to take his class as usual; but this gentleman has kindly consented to fill his place ("Hear, hear," said the gentleman alluded to), and if you'll come to-night, like a good lad, he and I will walk back with you; so if you do see the ghost, it will be in good company. But mind, this is on one condition. You must not say anything about it—about our walking back with you, I mean—to anybody. Say nothing; but get ready and come to school as usual. You understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Bill; "and I'm very much obliged to you, sir, and the other gentleman as well."
Nothing more was said, so Bill made his best bow and retired. As he went he heard Master Arthur say to the gardener—
"Then you'll go to the town at once, John. We shall want the things as soon as possible. You'd better take the pony, and we'll have the list ready for you."