The audience was large and sympathizing. Montauban had become the refuge of many Huguenot families who could nowhere else profess their faith without constant danger; and a large proportion of these were ladies, wives of gentlemen in the army kept up by La Noue, or widows who feared that their children might be taken from them to be brought up by their Catholic relations, elderly dames who longed for tranquillity after having lost husbands or sons by civil war. Thickly they lodged in the strangely named gasches and vertiers, as the divisions and subdivisions of the city were termed, occupying floors or apartments of the tall old houses; walking abroad in the streets in grave attire, stiff hat, crimped ruff, and huge fan, and forming a society in themselves, close-packed, punctilious and dignified, rigidly devout but strictly censorious, and altogether as unlike their typical country folks of Paris as if they had belonged to a different nation. And the sourest and most severe of all were such as had lived farthest south, and personally suffered the least peril and alarm.
Dancing was unheard-of enormity; cards and dice were prohibited; and stronger expletive than the elegant ones invented for the special use of the King of Navarre was expiated either by the purse or the skin; Marot's psalmody was the only music, black or sad colour the only wear; and, a few years later, the wife of one of the most distinguished statesmen and councilors of Henri of Navarre was excommunicated for the enormity of wearing her hair curled.
To such a community it was a delightful festival to receive a national assembly of ministers ready to regale them on daily sermons for a whole month, and to retail in private the points of discipline debated in the public assembly; and, apart from mere eagerness for novelty, many a discreet heart beat with gladness at the meeting with the hunted pastor of her native home, who had been the first to strike the spiritual chord, and awake her mind to religion.
Every family had their honoured guest, every reception-room was in turn the scene of some pious little assembly that drank eau sucree, and rejoiced in its favourite pastor; and each little congress indulged in gentle scandal against its rival coterie. But there was one point on which all the ladies agreed,—namely, that good Maitre Isaac Gardon had fallen into an almost doting state of blindness to the vanities of his daughter-in-law, and that she was a disgrace to the community, and ought to be publicly reprimanded.
Isaac Gardon, long reported to have been martyred—some said at Paris, others averred at La Sablerie—had indeed been welcomed with enthusiastic joy and veneration, when he made his appearance at Montauban, pale, aged, bent, leaning on a staff, and showing the dire effect of the rheumatic fever which had prostrated him after the night of drenching and exposure during the escape from La Sablerie. Crowded as the city was, there was a perfect competition among the tradesfolk for the honour of entertaining him and the young widow and child of a St. Bartholomew martyr. A cordwainer of the street of the Soubirous Hauts obtained this honour, and the wife, though speaking only the sweet Provencal tongue, soon established the most friendly relations with M. Gardon's daughter-in-law.
Two or three more pastors likewise lodged in the same house, and ready aid was given by Mademoiselle Gardon, as all called Eustacie, in the domestic cares thus entailed, while her filial attention to her father-in-law and her sweet tenderness to her child struck all this home circle with admiration. Children of that age were seldom seen at home among the better classes in towns. Then, as now, they were universally consigned to country nurses, who only brought them home at three or four years old, fresh from a squalid, neglected cottage life: and Eustacie's little moonbeam, la petite Rayonette, as she loved to call her, was quite an unusual spectacle; and from having lived entirely with grown people, and enjoyed the most tender and dainty care, she was intelligent and brightly docile to a degree that appeared marvellous to those who only saw children stupefied by a contrary system. She was a lovely little thing, exquisitely fair, and her plump white limbs small but perfectly moulded; she was always happy, because always healthy, and living in an atmosphere of love; and she was the pet and wonder of all the household, from the grinning apprentice to the grave young candidate who hoped to be elected pastor to the Duke de Quinet's village in the Cevennes.
And yet it was la petite Rayonette who first brought her mother into trouble. Since her emancipation from swaddling clothes she had been equipped in a little gray woolen frock, such as Eustacie had learnt to knit among the peasants, and varied with broad while stripes which gave it something of the moonbeam effect; but the mother had not been able to resist the pleasure of drawing up the bosom and tying it with a knot of the very carnation colour that Berenger used to call her own. That knot was discussed all up and down the Rue Soubirous Hauts, and even through the Carriera Major! The widow of an old friend of Maitre Gardon had remonstrated on the improprieties of such gay vanities, and Mdlle. Gardon had actually replied, reddening with insolences, that her husband had loved to see her wear the colour.
Now, if the brethren at Paris had indulged their daughters in such backslidings, see what had come of it! But that poor Theodore Gardon should have admired his bride in such unhallowed adornments, was an evident calumny; and many a head was shaken over it in grave and pious assembly.
Worse still; when she had been invited to a supper at the excellent Madame Fargeau's, the presumptuous little bourgeoise had evidently not known her place, but had seated herself as if she were a noble lady, a fille de qualite, instead of a mere minister's widow and a watchmaker's daughter. Pretend ignorance that precedence was to be here observed! That was another Parisian piece of impudence, above all in one who showed such ridiculous airs as to wipe her face with her own handkerchief instead of the table-cloth, and to be reluctant to help herself from the genera dish of potage with her own spoon. Even that might have been overlooked if she would have regaled them with a full and particular account of her own rescue from the massacre at Paris; but she merely coloured up, and said that she had been so ill as to know scarcely anything about it; and when they pressed her further, she shortly said, 'They locked me up;' and, before she could be cross-examined as to who was this 'they,' Maitre Gardon interfered, saying that she had suffered so much that he requested the subject might never be mentioned to her. Nor would he be more explicit, and there was evidently some mystery, and he was becoming blindly indulgent and besotted by the blandishments of an artful woman.
Eustacie was saved from hearing the gossip by her ignorance of the Provencal, which was the only languages of all but the highest and most cultivated classes, the hostess had very little langue d'oui, and never ventured on any complicated discourse; and Isaac Gardon, who could speak both the oc and oui, was not a person whom it was easy to beset with mere hearsay or petty remonstrance, but enough reached him at last to make him one day say mildly, 'My dear child, might not the little one dispense with her ribbon while we are here?'
'Eh, father? At the bidding of those impertinents?'
'Take care, daughter; you were perfect with the tradesfolk and peasants, but you cannot comport yourself as successfully with this petite noblesse, or the pastors' wives.'
'They are insolent, father. I, in my own true person, would treat no one as these petty dames treat me,' said Eustacie. 'I would not meddle between a peasant woman and her child, nor ask questions that must needs wring her heart.'
'Ah, child! humility is a bitter lesson; and even this world needs it now from you. We shall have suspicions; and I heard to-day that the King is in Dauphiny, and with him M. de Nid de Merle. Be not alarmed; he has no force with him, and the peace still subsists; but we must avoid suspicion. There is a preche at the Moustier to-day, in French; it would be well if you were to attend it.'
'I understand as little of French sermons as of Provencal,' murmured Eustacie; but it was only a murmur.
Maitre Gardon had soon found out that his charge had not head enough to be made a thorough-going controversial Calvinist. Clever, intelligent, and full of resources as she was, she had no capacity for argument, and could not enter into theoretical religion. Circumstances had driven her from her original Church and alienated her from those who had practiced such personal cruelties on her and hers, but the mould of her mind remained what it had been previously; she clung to the Huguenots because they protected her from those who would have forced an abhorrent marriage on her and snatched her child from her; and, personally, she loved and venerated Isaac Gardon with ardent, self-sacrificing filial love and gratitude, accepted as truth all that came from his lips, read the Scriptures, sang and prayed with him, and obeyed him as dutifully as ever the true Esperance could have done; but, except the merest external objections against the grossest and most palpable popular corruptions and fallacies, she really never entered into the matter. She had been left too ignorant of her own system to perceive its true clams upon her; and though she could not help preferring High Mass to a Calvinist assembly, and shrinking with instinctive pain and horror at the many profanations she witnessed, the really spiritual leadings of her own individual father-like leader had opened so much that was new and precious to her, so full of truth, so full of comfort, giving so much moral strength, that, unaware that all the foundations had been laid by Mere Monique, the resolute, high-spirited little thing, out of sheer constancy and constitutional courage, would have laid down her life as a Calvinist martyr, in profound ignorance that she was not in the least a Calvinist all the time.
Hitherto, her wandering life amid the persecuted Huguenots of the West had prevented her from hearing any preaching but good Isaac's own, which had been rather in the way of comfort and encouragement than of controversy, but in this great gathering it was impossible that there should not be plenty of vehement polemical oratory, such as was sue to fly over that weary little head. After a specimen or two, the chances of the sermon being in Provencal, and the necessity of attending to her child, had been Eustacie's excuse for usually offering to attend to the menage, and set her hostess free to be present at the preachings.
However, Rayonette was considered as no valid excuse; for did not whole circles of black-eyed children sit on the floor in sleepy stolidity at the feet of their mothers or nurses, and was it not a mere worldly folly to pretend that a child of sixteen months could not be brought to church? It was another instance of the mother's frivolity and the grandfather's idolatry.
The Moustier, or minster, the monastic church of Montauban, built on Mont Auriol in honour of St. Theodore, had, twelve years before, been plundered and sacked by the Calvinists, not only out of zeal for iconoclasm, but from long-standing hatred and jealousy against the monks. Catherine de Medicis had, in 1546, carried off two of the jasper columns from its chief door-way to the Louvre; and, after some years more, it was entirely destroyed. The grounds of the Auriol Mountain Monastery have been desolate down to the present day, when they have been formed into public gardens. When Eustacie walked through them, carrying her little girl in her arms, a rose in her bosom to console her for the loss of her bright breast-knot, they were in raw fresh dreariness, with tottering, blackened cloisters, garden flowers run wild, images that she had never ceased to regard as sacred lying broken and defiled among the grass and weeds.
Up the broad path was pacing the municipal procession, headed by the three Consuls, each with a serjeant bearing a white rod in front and a scarlet mantle, and the Consuls themselves in long robes with wide sleeves of quartered black and scarlet, followed by six halberdiers, likewise in scarlet, blazoned with the shield of the city—gules, a golden willow-tree, pollarded and shedding its branches, a chief azure with the three fleur-de-lys of royalty. As little Rayonette gleefully pointed at the brilliant pageant, Eustacie could not help saying, rather bitterly, that these messieurs seemed to wish to engross all the gay colours from heaven and earth from themselves; and Maitre Isaac could not help thinking she had some right on her side as he entered the church once gorgeous with jasper, marbles, and mosaics, glowing with painted glass, resplendent with gold and jewels, rich with paintings and draperies of the most brilliant dyes; but now, all that was, soiled, dulled, defaced; the whole building, even up to the end of the chancel, was closely fitted with benches occupied by the 'sad-coloured' congregation. Isaac was obliged by a strenuous effort of memory to recall 'Ne-hushtan' and the golden calves, before he could clear from his mind, 'Now they break down all the carved work thereof with axes and with hammers.' But, then, did not the thorough going Reformers think Master Isaac a very weak and back-sliding brother?
Nevertheless, in right of his age, his former reputation, and his sufferings, his place was full in the midst of the square-capped, black-robed ministers who sat herded on a sort of platform together, to address the Almighty and the congregation in prayers and discourses, interspersed with psalms sung by the whole assembly. There was no want of piety, depth, force, or fervour. These were men refined by persecution, who had struggled to the light that had been darkened by the popular system, and, having once been forced into foregoing their scruples as to breaking the unity of the Church, regarded themselves even as apostles of the truth. Listening to them, Isaac Gardon felt himself rapt into the hopes of cleansing the aspirations of universal re-integration that had shone before his early youth, ere the Church had shown herself deaf, and the Reformers in losing patience had lost purity, and disappointment had crushed him into an aged man.
He was recalled by the echo of a gay, little inarticulate cry—those baby tones that had become such music to his ears that he hardly realized that they were not indeed from his grandchild. In a moment's glance he saw how it was. A little bird had flown in at one of the empty window, and was fluttering over the heads of the congregation, and a small, plump, white arm and hand was stretched out and pointing—a rosy, fair, smiling face upturned; a little gray figure had scrambled up on the knee of one of the still, black-hooded women; and the shout of irrepressible delight was breaking on the decorum of the congregation, in spite of hushes, in spite of the uplifted rod of a scarlet serjeant on his way down the aisle to quell the disturbance; nay, as the bird came nearer, the exulting voice, proud of the achievement of a new word, shouted 'Moineau, moineau.' Angered by defiance to authority, down came the rod, not indeed with great force, but with enough to make the arms clasp round the mother's neck, the face hide itself on in, a loud, terrified wail ring through the church, and tempestuous sobbing follow it up. Then uprose the black-hooded figure, the child tightly clasped, and her mantle drawn round it, while the other hand motioned the official aside, and down the aisle, even to the door, she swept with the lofty carriage, high-drawn neck, and swelling bosom of an offended princess.
Maitre Gardon heard little more of the discourse, indeed he would have followed at once had he not feared to increase the sensation and the scandal. He came home to find Rayonette's tears long ago dried, but her mother furious. She would leave Montauban that minute, she would never set foot in a heretic conventicle again, to have her fatherless child, daughter of all the Ribaumonts, struck by base canaille. Even her uncle could not have done worse; he at least would have respected her blood.
Maitre Gardon did not know that his charge could be in such a passion, as, her eyes flashing through tears, she insisted on being taken away at once. No, she would hear nothing. She seemed to fell resentment due to the honour of all the Ribaumonts, and he was obliged peremptorily to refuse to quit Montauban till his business at the Synod should be completed, and then to leave her in a flood of angry tears and reproaches for exposing her child to such usage, and approving it.
Poor little thing, he found her meek and penitent for her unjust anger towards himself. Whatever he desired she would do, she would stay or go with him anywhere except to a sermon at the Moustier, and she did not think that in her heart her good father desired little infants to be beaten—least of all Berenger's little one. And with Rayonette already on his knee, stealing his spectacles, peace was made.
Peace with him, but not with the congregation! Were people to stalk out of church in a rage, and make no reparation? Was Maitre Isaac to talk of orphans, only children, and maternal love, as if weak human affection did not need chastisement? Was this saucy Parisienne to play the offended, and say that if the child were not suffered at church she must stay at home with it? The ladies agitated to have the obnoxious young widow reprimanded in open Synod, but, to their still greater disgust, not a pastor would consent to perform the office. Some said that Maitre Gardon ought to rule his own household, others that they respected him too much to interfere, and there were others abandoned enough to assert that if any one needed a reprimand it was the serjeant.
Of these was the young candidate, Samuel Mace, who had been educated at the expense of the Dowager Duchess de Quinet, and hoped that her influence would obtain his election to the pastorate of a certain peaceful little village deep in the Cevennes. She had intimated that what he wanted was a wife to teach and improve the wives of the peasant farmers, and where could a more eligible one be found than Esperance Gardon? Her cookery he tasted, her industry he saw, her tenderness to her child, her attention to her father, were his daily admiration; and her soft velvet eyes and sweet smile went so deep in his heart that he would have bought her ells upon ells of pink ribbon, when once out of sight of the old ladies; would have given a father's love to her little daughter, and a son's duty and veneration to Isaac Gardon.
His patroness did not deny her approval. The gossip had indeed reached her, but she had a high esteem for Isaac Gardon, believed in Samuel Mace's good sense, and heeded Montauban scandal very little. Her protege would be much better married to a spirited woman who had seen the world, than to a mere farmer's daughter who had never looked beyond her cheese. Old Gardon would be an admirable adviser, and if he were taken into the menage she would add to the endowment another arable field, and grass for two more cows. If she liked the young woman on inspection, the marriage should take place in her own august presence.
What! had Maitre Gardon refused? Forbidden that the subject should be mentioned to his daughter? Impossible! Either Mace had managed matters foolishly, or the old man had some doubt of him which she could remove, or else it was foolish reluctance to part with his daughter-in-law. Or the gossips were right after all, and he knew her to be too light-minded, if not worse, to be the wife of any pious young minister. Or there was some mystery. Any way, Madame la Duchesse would see him, and bring him to his senses, make him give the girl a good husband if she were worthy, or devote her to condign punishment if she were unworthy.
CHAPTER XXXIV. MADAME LA DUCHESSE
He found an ancient dame in dim brocade.—-TENNYSON
Madame la Duchesse de Quinet had been a great heiress and a personal friend and favourite of Queen Jeanne d'Albret. She had been left a widow after five years' marriage, and for forty subsequent years had reigned despotically in her own name and that of mon fils. Busied with the support of the Huguenot cause, sometimes by arms, but more usually by politics, and constantly occupied by the hereditary government of one of the lesser counties of France, the Duke was all the better son for relinquishing to her the home administration, as well as the education of his two motherless boys; and their confidence and affection were perfect, though he was almost as seldom at home as she was abroad. At times, indeed, she had visited Queen Jeanne at Nerac; but since the good Queen's death, she only left the great chateau of Quinet to make a royal progress of inspection through the family towns, castles, and estates, sometimes to winter in her beautiful hereditary hotel at Montauban, and as at present to attend any great assembly of the Reformed.
Very seldom was her will not law. Strong sense and judgment, backed by the learning that Queen Marguerite of Navarre had introduced among the companions of her daughter, had rendered her superior to most of those with whom she came in contact: and the Huguenot ministers, who were much more dependent on their laity than the Catholic priesthood, for the most part treated her as not only a devout and honourable woman, an elect lady, but as a sort of State authority. That she had the right-mindedness to respect and esteem such men as Theodore Beza, Merlin, &c., who treated her with great regard, but never cringed, had not become known to the rest. Let her have once pronounced against poor little Esperance Gardon, and public disgrace would be a matter of certainty.
There she sat in her wainscoted walnut cabinet, a small woman by her inches, but stately enough to seem of majestic stature, and with gray eyes, of inexpressible keenness, which she fixed upon the halting, broken form of Isaac Gardon, and his grave, venerable face, as she half rose and made a slight acknowledgment of his low bow.
'Sit, Maitre Gardon, you are lame,' she said, with a wave of her hand. 'I gave you the incommodity of coming to see me not openly discuss en pleine sale.'
'Madame is considerate,' said Isaac, civilly, but with an open-eyed look and air that at once showed her that she had not to deal with one of the ministers who never forgot their low birth in intercourse with her.
'I understand,' said she, coming to the point at once, 'that you decline the proposals of Samuel Mace for your daughter-in-law. Now I wish you to know that Mace is a very good youth, whom I have known from his birth'—and she went on in his praise, Isaac bowing at each pause, until she had exhausted both Mace's history and her own beneficent intentions for him. Then he said, 'Madame is very good, and the young man appeared to me excellent. Nevertheless, this thing may not be. My daughter-in-law has resolved not to marry again.'
'Nay, but this is mere folly,' said the Duchess. 'We hold not Catholic tenets on merit in abstaining, but rather go by St. Paul's advice that the younger widows should marry, rather than wax wanton. And, to tell you the truth, Maitre Gardon, this daughter of yours does seem to have set tongues in motion.'
'Not by her own fault, Madame.'
'Stay, my good friend; I never found a man—minister or lay—who was a fair judge in these matters. You old men are no better than the young—rather worse—because you do not distrust yourselves. Now, I say no harm of the young woman, and I know an angel would be abused at Montauban for not wearing sad-coloured wings; but she needs a man's care—you are frail, you cannot live for ever—and how is it to be with her and her child?'
'I hope to bestow them among her kindred ere I die, Madame,' said Isaac.
'No kindred can serve a woman like a sensible husband! Besides, I thought all perished at Paris. Listen, Isaac Gardon: I tell you plainly that scandal is afloat. You are blamed for culpable indifference to alleged levities—I say not that it is true—but I see this, that unless you can bestow your daughter-in-law on a good, honest man, able to silence the whispers of malice, there will be measures taken that will do shame both to your own gray hairs and to the memory of your dead son, as well as expose the poor young woman herself. You are one who has a true tongue, Isaac Gardon; and if you can assure me that she is a faithful, good woman, as poor Mace thinks her, and will give her to him in testimony thereof, then shall not a mouth open against her. If not, in spite of all my esteem for you, the discipline of the Reformed must take its course.'
'And for what?' said Isaac, with a grave tone, almost of reproof. 'What discipline can punish a woman for letting her infant wear a coloured ribbon, and shielding it from a blow?'
'That is not all, Master Isaac,' said the Duchess, seriously. 'In spite of your much-respected name, evil and censorious tongues will have it that matters ought to be investigated; that there is some mystery; that the young woman does not give a satisfactory account of herself, and that the child does not resemble either her or your son—in short, that you may be deceived by an impostor, perhaps a Catholic spy. Mind, I say not that I credit all this, only I would show you what reports you must guard against.'
'La pauvre petite!' said Isaac, under his breath, as if appalled; then collecting himself, he said, 'Madame, these are well-nigh threats. I had come hither nearly resolved to confined in you without them.'
'Then there is a mystery?'
'Yes, Madame, but the deception is solely in the name. She is, in very truth, a widow of a martyr of the St. Barthelemy, but that martyr was not my son, whose wife was happy in dying with him.'
'And who, then, is she?'
'Madame la Duchesse had heard of the family of Ribaumont.'
'Ha! M. de Ribaumont! A gay comrade of King Henry II., but who had his eyes opened to the truth by M. l'Amiral, though he lacked courage for an open profession. Yes, the very last pageant I beheld at court, was the wedding of his little son to the Count de Ribaumont's daughter. It was said that the youth was one of our victims at Paris.'
'Even so, Madame; and this poor child is the little one whom you saw wedded to him.' And then, in answer to the Duchess's astonished inquiry, he proceeded to relate how Eustacie had been forced to fly from her kindred, and how he had first encountered her at his own lurking-placed, and had accepted her as a charge imposed on him by Providence; then explained how, at La Sablerie, she had been recognized by a young gentleman whom she had known at Paris, but who professed to be fleeing to England, there to study the Protestant controversy; and how she had confided to him a letter to her husband's mother, who was married in England, begging her to send for her and her daughter, the latter being heiress to certain English estates, as well as French.
'Madame,' added Gardon, 'Heaven forgive me, if I do the Youth injustice by suspecting him, but no answer ever arrived to that letter; and while we still expected one, a good and kindly citizen, who I trust has long been received into glory, sent me notice that a detachment of Monsieur's army was on its way from La Rochelle, under command of M. de Nid de Merle, to search out this poor lady in La Sablerie. He, good man, deemed that, were we gone, he could make terms for the place, and we therefore quitted it. Alas! Madame knows how it fared with the pious friend we left. Little deeming how they would be dealt with, we took our way along the Sables d'Olonne, where alone we could be safe, since, as Madame knows, they are for miles impracticable for troops. But we had another enemy there—the tide; and there was a time when we truly deemed that the mercy granted us had been that we had fallen into the hand of the Lord instead of the hand of cruel man. Yes, Madame, and even for that did she give thanks, as she stood, never even trembling, on the low sandbank, with her babe in her bosom, and the sea creeping up on all sides. She only turned to me with a smile, saying, 'She is asleep, she will not feel it, or know anything till she wakes up in Paradise, and sees her father.' Never saw I a woman, either through nature or grace, so devoid of fear. We were rescued at last, by the mercy of Heaven, which sent a fisherman, who bore us to his boat when benumbed with cold, and scarce able to move. He took us to a good priest's, Colombeau of Nissard, a man who, as Madame may know, is one of those veritable saints who still are sustained by the truth within their Church, and is full of charity and mercy. He asked me no questions, but fed, warmed, sheltered us, and sped us on our way. Perhaps, however, I was over-confident in myself, as the guardian of the poor child, for it was Heaven's will that the cold and wet of our night on the sands—though those tender young frames did not suffer therefrom—should bring on an illness which has made an old man of me. I struggled on as long as I could, hoping to attain to a safe resting-place for her, but the winter cold completed the work; and then, Madame—oh that I could tell you the blessing she was to me!—her patience, her watchfulness, her tenderness, through all the long weeks that I lay helpless alike in mind and body at Charente. Ah! Madame, had my own daughter lived, she could not have been more to me than that noble lady; and her cheerful love did even more for me than her tender care.'
'I must see her,' ejaculated the Duchesse; then added, 'But was it this illness that hindered you from placing her in safety in England?'
'In part, Madame; nay, I may say, wholly. We learnt that the assembly was to take place here, and I had my poor testimony to deliver, and to give notice of my intention to my brethren before going to a foreign land, whence perhaps I may never return.'
'She ought to be in England,' said Madame de Quinet; 'she will never be safe from these kinsmen in this country.'
'M. de Nid de Merle has been all the spring in Poland with the King,' said the minister, 'and the poor lady is thought to have perished at La Sablerie. Thus the danger has been less pressing, but I would have taken her to England at once, if I could have made sure of her reception, and besides—-' he faltered.
'The means?' demanded the Duchess, guessing at the meaning.
'Madame is right. She had brought away some money and jewels with her, but alas, Madame, during my illness, without my knowledge, the dear child absolutely sold them to procure comforts for me. Nay'—his eyes filled with tears—'she whom they blame for vanities sold the very hair from her head to purchase unguents to ease the old man's pains; nor did I know it for many a day after. From day to day we can live, for our own people willingly support a pastor and his family; and in every house my daughter has been loved,—everywhere but in this harsh-judging town. But for the expense of a voyage, even were we at Bordeaux or La Rochelle, we have nothing, save by parting with the only jewels that remain to her, and those—those, she says, are heirlooms; and, poor child, she guards them almost as jealously as her infant, around whom she has fastened them beneath her clothes. She will not even as yet hear of leaving them in pledge, to be redeemed by the family. She says they would hardly know her without them. And truly, Madame, I scarce venture to take her to England, ere I know what reception would await her. Should her husband's family disown or cast her off, I could take better care of her here than in a strange land.'
'You are right, Maitre Gardon,' said the Duchess; 'the risk might be great. I would see this lady. She must be a rare creature. Bear her my greetings, my friend, and pray her to do me the honour of a visit this afternoon. Tell her I would come myself to her, but that I understand she does not wish to attract notice.'
'Madame,' said Isaac, rising, and with a strange manner, between a smile and a tear of earnestness, 'allow me to bespeak your goodness for my daughter. The poor little thing is scarcely more than a child. She is but eighteen even now, and it is not always easy to tell whether she will be an angel of noble goodness, or, pardon me, a half-petulant child.'
'I understand:' Madame de Quinet laughed, and she probably did understand more than reluctant, anxious Isaac Gardon thought she did, of his winning, gracious, yet haughty, head-strong little charge, so humbly helpful one moment, so self-asserting and childish the next, so dear to him, yet so unlike anything in his experience.
'Child,' he said, as he found her in the sunny window engaged in plaiting the deep folds of his starched ruffs, 'you have something to forgive me.'
'Fathers do not ask their children's pardon,' said Eustacie, brightly, but then, with sudden dismay, 'Ah! you have not said I should go to the Moustier again.'
'No, daughter; but Madame de Quinet entreats—these are her words—that you will do her the honour of calling on her. She would come to you, but that she fears to attract notice to us.'
'You have told her!' exclaimed Eustacie.
'I was compelled, but I had already thought of asking your consent, and she is a true and generous lady, with whom your secret will be safe, and who can hush the idle tongues here. So, daughter,' he added restlessly, 'don your hood; that ruff will serve for another day.'
'Another day, when the morrow is Sunday, and my father's ruff is to put to shame all the other pastors',' said Eustacie, her quick fingers still moving. 'No, he shall not go ill-starched for any Duchess in France. Now am I in any haste to be lectured by Madame de Quinet, as they say she lectured the Dame de Soubrera the other day.'
'My child, you will go; much depends on it.'
'Oh yes, I am going; only if Madame de Quinet knows who I am, she will not expect me to hurry at her beck and call the first moment. Here, Rayonette, my bird, my beauty, thou must have a clean cap; ay, and these flaxen curls combed.'
'Would you take the child?'
'Would I go without Mademoiselle de Rambouillet? She is all her mother is, and more. There, now she is a true rose-bud, ready to perch on my arm. No, no bon pere. So great a girl is too much for you to carry. Don't be afraid, my darling, we are not going to a sermon, no one will beat her; oh no, and if the insolent retainers and pert lacqueys laugh at her mother, no one will hurt her.'
'Nay, child,' said Maitre Gardon; 'this is a well-ordered household, where contempt and scorn are not suffered. Only, dear, dear daughter, let me pray you to be your true self with the Duchess.'
Eustacie shrugged her shoulders, and had mischief enough in her to enjoy keeping her good father in some doubt and dread as he went halting wearily by her side along the much-decorated streets that marked the grand Gasche of Tarn and Tarascon. The Hotel de Quinet stretched out its broad stone steps, covered with vaultings, absolutely across the street, affording a welcome shade, and no obstruction where wheeled carriages never came.
All was, as Maitre Isaac had said, decorum itself. A couple of armed retainers, rigid as sentinels, waited on the steps; a grave porter, maimed in the wars opened the great door; half a dozen—laquais in sober though rich liveries sat on a bench in the hall, and had somewhat the air of having been set to con a lesson. Two of them coming respectfully forward, ushered Maitre Gardon and his companion to an ante-room, where various gentlemen, or pastors, or candidates—among them Samuel Mace—were awaiting a summons to the Duchess, or merely using it as a place of assembly. A page of high birth, but well schooled in steadiness of demeanour, went at once to announce the arrival; and Gardon and his companion had not been many moments in conversation with their acquaintance among the ministers, before the grave gentleman returned, apparently from his audience and the page, coming to Eustacie, intimated that she was to follow him to Madame le Duchesse's presence.
He conducted her across a great tapestry-hung saloon, where twelve or fourteen ladies of all ages—from seventy to fifteen—sat at work: some at tapestry, some spinning, some making coarse garments for the poor. A great throne-like chair, with a canopy over it, a footstool, a desk and a small table before it, was vacant, and the work—a poor child's knitted cap—laid down; but an elderly minister, seated at a carved desk, had not discontinued reading from a great black book, and did not even cease while the strangers crossed the room, merely making a slight inclination with his head, while the ladies half rose, rustled a slight reverence with their black, gray or russet skirts, but hardly lifted their eyes. Eustacie thought the Louvre had never been half so formidable or impressive.
The page lifted a heavy green curtain behind the canopy, knocked at a door, and, as it opened, Eustacie was conscious of a dignified presence, that, in spite of her previous petulance, caused her instinctively to bend in such a reverence as had formerly been natural to her; but, at the same moment, a low and magnificent curtsey was made to her, a hand was held out, a stately kiss was on her brow, and a voice of dignified courtesy said, 'Pardon me, Madame la Baronne, for giving you this trouble. I feared that otherwise we could not safely meet.'
'Madame is very good. My Rayonette, make thy reverence; kiss thy hand to the lady, my lamb.' And the little one obeyed, gazing with her blue eyes full opened, and clinging to her mother.
'Ah! Madame la Baronne makes herself obeyed,' said Madame de Quinet, well pleased. 'Is it then a girl?'
'Yes, Madame, I could scarcely forgive her at first; but she has made herself all the dearer to me.'
'It is a pity,' said Madame de Quinet, 'for yours is an ancient stem.'
'Did Madame know my parents?' asked Eustacie, drawn from her spirit of defiance by the equality of the manner with which she was treated.
'Scarcely,' replied the Duchess; but, with a smile, 'I had the honour to see you married.'
'Ah, then,'—Eustacie glowed, almost smiled, though a tear was in her eyes—'you can see how like my little one is to her father,—a true White Ribaumont.'
The Duchess had not the most distinct recollection of the complexion of the little bridegroom; but Rayonette's fairness was incontestable, and the old lady complimented it so as to draw on the young mother into confidence on the pet moonbeam appellation which she used in dread of exciting suspicion by using the true name of Berangere, with all the why and wherefore.
It was what the Duchess wanted. Imperious as some thought her, she would on no account have appeared to cross-examine any one whose essential nobleness of nature struck her as did little Eustacie's at the first moment she saw her; and yet she had decided, before the young woman arrived, that her own good opinion and assistance should depend on the correspondence of Madame de Ribaumont's history of herself with Maitre Gardon's.
Eustacie had, for a year and a half, lived with peasants; and, indeed, since the trials of her life had really begun, she had never been with a woman of her own station to whom she could give confidence, or from whom she could look for sympathy. And thus a very few inquiries and tokens of interest from the old lady drew out the whole story, and more than once filled Madame de Quinet's eyes with tears.
There was only one discrepancy; Eustacie could not believe that the Abbe de Mericour had been a faithless messenger. Oh, no! either those savage-looking sailors had played him false, or else her bele-mere would not send for her. 'My mother-in-law never loved me,' said Eustacie; 'I know she never did. And now she has children by her second marriage, and no doubt would not see my little one preferred to them. I will not be HER suppliant.'
'And what then would you do?' said Madame de Quinet, with a more severe tone.
'Never leave my dear father,' said Eustacie, with a flash of eagerness; 'Maitre Isaac I mean. He has been more to me than any—any one I ever knew—save——'
'You have much cause for gratitude to him,' said Madame de Quinet. 'I honour your filial love to him. Yet, you have duties to this little one. You have no right to keep her from her position. You ought to write to England again. I am sure Maitre Isaac tells you so.'
Eustacie would have pouted, but the grave, kind authority of the manner prevented her from being childish, and she said, 'If I wrote, it should be to my husband's grandfather, who brought him up, designated him as his heir, and whom he loved with all his heart. But, oh, Madame, he has one of those English names! So dreadful! It sounds like Vol-au-vent, but it is not that precisely.'
Madame de Quinet smiled, but she was a woman of resources. 'See, my friend,' she said, 'the pursuivant of the consuls here has the rolls of the herald's visitations throughout the kingdom. The arms and name of the Baron de Ribaumont's wife will there be entered; and from my house at Quinet you shall write, and I, too, will write; my son shall take care that the letters be forwarded safely, and you shall await their arrival under my protection. That will be more fitting than running the country with an old pastor, hein?'
'Madame, nothing shall induce me to quit him!' exclaimed Eustacie, vehemently.
'Hear me out, child,' said the Duchess. 'He goes with us to assist my chaplain; he is not much fitter for wandering than you, or less so. And you, Madame, must, I fear me, still remain his daughter-in-law in my household; or if you bore your own name and rank, this uncle and cousin of yours might learn that you were still living; and did they claim you—-'
'Oh, Madame, rather let me be your meanest kitchen-girl!'
'To be—what do they call you?—Esperance Gardon will be quite enough. I have various women here—widows, wives, daughters or sufferers for the truth's sake, who either are glad of rest, or are trained up to lead a godly life in the discipline of my household. Among them you can live without suspicion, provided,' the old lady added, smiling, 'you can abstain from turning the heads of our poor young candidates.'
'Madame,' said Eustacie, gravely, 'I shall never turn any one's head. There was only one who was obliged to love me, and happily I am nor fair enough to win any one else.'
'Tenez, child. Is this true simplicity? Did Gardon, truly, never tell you of poor Samuel Mace?'
Eustacie's face expressed such genuine amazement and consternation, that the Duchess could not help touching her on the cheek, and saying, 'Ah! simple as a pensionnaire, as we used to say when no one else was innocent. But it is true, my dear, that to poor Samuel we owe our meeting. I will send him off, the poor fellow, at once to Bourge-le-Roy to preach his three sermons; and when they had driven you a little out of his head, he shall have Mariette there—a good girl, who will make him an excellent wife. She is ugly enough, but it will be all the same to him just then! I will see him, and let him know that I have reasons. He lodges in your house, does he? Then you had better come to see me at once. So will evil tongues best be silenced.
'But hold,' the Duchess said, smiling. 'You will think me a foolish old woman, but is it true that you have saved the Pearls of Ribaumont, of which good Canon Froissart tells?'
Eustacie lifted her child on her knee, untied the little gray frock, and showed them fastened beneath, well out of sight. 'I thought my treasures should guard one another,' she said. 'One I sent as a token to my mother-in-law. For the rest, they are not mine, but hers; her father lent them to me, not gave: so she wears them thus; and anything but HER life should go rather than THEY should.'
'Hein, a fine guardian for them!' was all the Duchess said in answer.
CHAPTER XXXV. THE ITALIAN PEDLAR
This caitiff monk for gold did swear, That by his drugs my rival fair A saint in heaven should be.—SCOTT
A grand cavalcade bore the house of Quinet from Montauban—coaches, wagons, outriders, gendarmes—it was a perfect court progress, and so low and cumbrous that it was a whole week in reaching a grand old castle standing on a hill-side among chestnut woods, with an avenue a mile long leading up to it; and battlemented towers fit to stand a siege.
Eustacie was ranked among the Duchess's gentlewomen. She was so far acknowledged as a lady of birth, that she was usually called Madame Esperance; and though no one was supposed to doubt her being Theodore Gardon's widow, she was regarded as being a person of rank who had made a misalliance by marrying him. This Madame de Quinet had allowed the household to infer, thinking that the whole bearing of her guest was too unlike that of a Paris bourgeoise not to excite suspicion, but she deemed it wiser to refrain from treating her with either intimacy or distinction that might excite jealousy or suspicion. Even as it was, the consciousness of a secret, or the remnants of Montauban gossip, prevented any familiarity between Eustacie and the good ladies who surrounded her; they were very civil to each other, but their only connecting link was the delight that every one took in petting pretty little Rayonette, and the wonder that was made of her signs of intelligence and attempts at talking. Even when she toddled fearlessly up to the stately Duchess on her canopied throne, and held out her entreating hands, and lisped the word 'nontre,' Madame would pause in her avocations, take her on her knee, and display that wonderful gold and enamel creature which cried tic-tic, and still remained an unapproachable mystery to M. le Marquis and M. le Vicomte, her grandsons.
Pale, formal stiff boys they looked, twelve and ten years old, and under the dominion of a very learned tutor, who taught them Latin, Greek and Hebrew, alternately with an equally precise, stiff old esquire, who trained them in martial exercises, which seemed to be as much matters of rote with them as their tasks, and to be quite as uninteresting. It did not seem as if they ever played, or thought of playing; and if they were ever to be gay, witty Frenchmen, a wonderful change must come over them.
The elder was already betrothed to a Bearnese damsel, of an unimpeachably ancient and Calvinistic family; and the whole establishment had for the last three years been employed on tapestry hangings for a whole suite of rooms, that were to be fitted up and hung with the histories of Ruth, of Abigail, of the Shunammite, and of Esther, which their diligent needles might hope to complete by the time the marriage should take place, three years later! The Duchess, who really was not unlike 'that great woman' the Shunammite, in her dignified content with 'dwelling among her own people,' and her desire to 'receive a prophet in the name of a prophet,' generally sat presiding over the work while some one, chaplain, grandson, or young maiden, read aloud from carefully assorted books; religious treatises at certain hours, and at others, history. Often, however, Madame was called away into her cabinet, where she gave audience to intendants, notaries from her estates, pastors from the villages, captains of little garrisons, soldiers offering service, farmers, women, shepherds, foresters, peasants, who came either on her business or with their own needs—for all of which she was ready with the beneficence and decision of an autocrat.
The chapel had been 'purified,' and made bare of all altar or image. It was filled with benches and a desk, whence Isaac Gardon, the chaplain, any pastor on a visit, or sometimes a candidate for his promotion, would expound, and offer prayers, shortly in the week, more at length on Sunday; and there, too, classes were held for the instruction of the peasants.
There was a great garden full of medicinal plants, and decoctions and distilleries were the chief variety enjoyed by the gentlewomen. The Duchess had studied much in quaint Latin and French medical books, and, having great experience and good sense, was probably as good a doctor as any one in the kingdom except Ambroise Pare and his pupils; and she required her ladies to practise under her upon the numerous ailments that the peasants were continually bringing for her treatment. 'No one could tell,' she said, 'how soon they might be dealing with gun-shot wounds, and all ought to know how to sew up a gash, or cure an argue.'
This department suited Eustacie much better than the stitching, and best of all she liked to be sent with Maitre Isaac to some cottage where solace for soul and body were needed, and the inmate was too ill to be brought to Madame la Duchess. She was learning much and improving too in the orderly household, but her wanderings had made her something of a little gipsy. She now and then was intolerably weary, and felt as if she had been entirely spoilt for her natural post. 'What would become of her,' she said to Maitre Isaac, 'if she were too grand to dress Rayonette?'
She was not greatly distressed that the Montauban pursuivant turned out to have only the records of the Provencal nobility, and was forced to communicate with his brethren at Bordeaux before he could bring down the Ribaumont genealogy to the actual generation; and so slow was communication, so tardy the mode of doing everything, that the chestnut leaves were falling and autumn becoming winter before the blazoned letter showed Ribaumont, de Picardie—'Gules, fretty or, a canton of the last, a leopard, sable. Eustacie Berangere, m. Annora, daughter and heiress of Villiam, Baron of Valvem, in the county of Dorisette, England, who beareth, azure, a siren regardant in a mirror proper.' The siren was drawn in all her propriety impaled with the leopard, and she was so much more comprehensible than the names, to both Madame de Quinet and Eustacie, that it was a pity they could not direct their letters to her rather than to 'Le Baron de Valvem,' whose cruel W's perplexed them so much. However, the address was the least of Eustacie's troubles; she should be only too glad when she got to that, and she was sitting in Maitre Isaac's room, trying to make him dictate her sentences and asking him how to spell every third word, when the dinner-bell rang, and the whole household dropped down from salon, library, study, or chamber to the huge hall, with its pavement of black and white marble, and its long tables, for Madame de Quinet was no woman to discard wholesome old practices.
Then, as Eustacie, with Rayonette trotting at her side, and Maitre Isaac leaning on her arm, slowly made her way to that high table where dined Madame la Duchess, her grandsons, the ministers, the gentlemen in waiting, and some three or four women besides herself, she saw that the lower end of the great hall was full of silks, cloths, and ribbons heaped together; and, passing by the lengthy rank of retainers, she received a bow and look of recognition from a dark, acute-looking visage which she remembered to belong to the pedlar she had met at Charente.
The Duchess, at the head of her table, was not in the best of humours. Her son had sent home letters by a courier whom he had picked up for himself and she never liked nor trusted, and he required an immediate reply when she particularly resented being hurried. It was a galimafre, literally a hash, she said; for indeed most matters where she was not consulted did become a galimafre with her. Moreover, under favour of the courier, her porters had admitted this pedlar, and the Duchess greatly disliked pedlars. All her household stores were bought at shops of good repute in Montauban, and no one ought to be so improvident as to require dealings with these mountebank vagabonds, who dangled vanities before the eyes of silly girls, and filled their heads with Paris fashion, if they did not do still worse, and excite them to the purchase of cosmetics and love-charms.
Yet the excitement caused by the approach of a pedlar was invincible, even by Madame la Duchess. It was inevitable that the crying need of glove, kerchief, needle, or the like, should be discovered as soon as he came within ken, and, once in the hall, there was no being rid of him except by a flagrant act of inhospitality. This time it was worst of all, for M. le Marquis himself must needs be the first to spy him, bring him in, and be in want of a silver chain for his hawk; and his brother the Vicomte must follow him up with all manner of wants inspired by the mere sight of the pack.
Every one with the smallest sum of money must buy, every one without inspect and assist in bargaining; and all dinner-time, eyes, thoughts, and words were wandering to the gay pile in the corner, or reckoning up needs and means. The pedlar, too, knew what a Calvinist household was, and had been extremely discreet, producing nothing that could reasonably be objected to; and the Duchess, seeing that the stream was too strong for her, wisely tried to steer her bark through it safely instead of directly opposing it.
As soon as grace was over, she called her maitre d'hotel, and bade him look after that galimafre, and see that none of these fools were unreasonably cheated, and that there was no attempt at gulling the young ones with charms or fortune-telling, as well as to conclude the matter so as to give no excuse for the Italian fellow lingering to sup and sleep. She then retired to her cabinet to prepare her dispatches, which were to include a letter to Lord Walwyn. Though a nominal friendship subsisted between Elisabeth and the French court, the Huguenot chiefs always maintained a correspondence with England, and there was little danger but that the Duke de Quinet would be able to get a letter, sooner or later, conveyed to any man of mark. In the course of her letter, Madame de Quinet found it necessary to refer to Eustacie. She rang her little silver handbell for the hall. There, of course, Master Page had been engulfed in the galimafre, and not only forming one of the swarm around the pedlar, but was actually aping courtly grimaces as he tried a delicate lace ruffle on the hand of a silly little smirking maiden, no older than himself! But this little episode was, like many others, overlooked by Madame de Quinet, as her eye fell upon the little figure of Rayonette standing on the table, with her mother and two or three ladies besides coaxing her to open her mouth, and show the swollen gums that had of late been troubling her, while the pedlar was evidently expending his blandishments upon her.
The maitre d'hotel was the first to perceive his mistress, and, as he approached, received a sharp rebuke from her for allowing the fellow to produce his quack medicines; and, at the same time, she desired him to request Madame Esperance to come to her immediately on business. Eustacie, who always had a certain self-willed sense of opposition when the Duchess showed herself peremptory towards her, at first began to make answer that she would come as soon as her business was concluded; but the steward made a gesture towards the great lady sailing up and down as she paced the dais in stately impatience. 'Good fellow,' she said, 'I will return quickly, and see you again, though I am now interrupted. Stay there, little one, with good Mademoiselle Perrot; mother will soon be back.'
Rayonette, in her tooth-fretfulnes, was far from enduring to be forsaken so near a strange man, and her cry made it necessary for Eustacie to take her in arms, and carry her to the dais where the Duchess was waiting.
'So!' said the lady, 'I suspected that the fellow was a quack as well as a cheat.'
'Madame,'said Eustacie, with spirit, 'he sold me unguents that greatly relieved my father last spring.'
'And because rubbing relieved an old man's rheumatics, you would let a vagabond cheat drug and sicken this poor child for what is not ailment at all—and the teeth will relieve in a few days. Or, if she were feverish, have not we decoctions brewed from Heaven's own pure herbs in the garden, with no unknown ingredient?'
'Madame,' said Eustacie, ruffling into fierceness, 'you are very good to me; but I must keep the management of my daughter to myself.'
The Duchess looked at her from head to foot. Perhaps it was with an impulse to treat her impertinence as she would have done that of a dependant; but the old lady never forgot herself: she only shrugged her shoulders and said, with studied politeness, 'When I unfortunately interrupted your consultation with this eminent physician, it was to ask you a question regarding this English family. Will you do me the honour to enter my cabinet?'
And whereas no one was looking, the old lady showed her displeasure by ushering Madame de Ribaumont into her cabinet like a true noble stranger guest; so that Eustacie felt disconcerted.
The Duchess then began to read aloud her own letter to Lord Walwyn, pausing at every clause, so that Eustacie felt the delay and discussion growing interminable, and the Duchess then requested to have Madame de Ribaumont's own letter at once, as she wished to inclose it, make up her packet, and send it without delay. Opening a secret door in her cabinet, she showed Eustacie stair by which she might reach Maitre Gardon's room without crossing the hall. Eustacie hoped to find him there and tell him how intolerable was the Duchess; but, though she found him, it was in company with the tutor, who was spending an afternoon on Plato with him. She could only take up her letter and retreat to Madame's cabinet, where she had left her child. She finished it as best she might, addressed it after the herald's spelling of the title, bound it with some of the Duchess's black floss silk—wondering meanwhile, but little guessing that the pedlar knew, where was the tress that had bound her last attempt at correspondence, guessing least of all that that tress lay on a heart still living and throbbing for her. All this had made her a little forget her haste to assert her liberty of action by returning to the pedlar; but, behold, when she came back to the hall, it had resumed its pristine soberness, and merely a few lingering figures were to be seen, packing up their purchases.
While she was still looking round in dismay, Mademoiselle Perrot came up to her and said, 'Ah! Madame, you may well wonder! I never saw Maitre Benoit there so cross; the poor man did but offer to sell little Fanchon the elizir that secures a good husband, and old Benoit descended on him like a griffin enraged, would scarce give him time to compute his charges or pack his wares, but hustled him forth like a mere thief! And I missed my bargain for that muffler that had so taken my fancy. But, Madame, he spoke to me apart, and said you were an old customer of his, and that rather than the little angel should suffer with her teeth, which surely threaten convulsions, he would leave with you this sovereign remedy of sweet syrup—a spoonful to be given each night.'
Eustacie took the little flask. She was much inclined to give the syrup by way of precaution, as well as to assure herself that she was not under the Duchess's dominion; but some strong instinct of the truth of the lady's words that the child was safer and healthier undoctored, made her resolve at least to defer it until the little one showed any perilous symptom. And as happily Rayonette only showed two little white teeth, and much greater good-humour, the syrup was nearly forgotten, when, a fortnight after, the Duchess received a dispatch from her son which filled her with the utmost indignation. The courier had indeed arrived, but the packet had proved to be filled with hay and waste-paper. And upon close examination, under the lash, the courier had been forced to confess to having allowed himself to be overtaken by the pedlar, and treated by him to a supper at a cabaret. No doubt, while he was afterwards asleep, the contents of his packet had been abstracted. There had been important documents for the Duke besides Eustacie's letters, and the affair greatly annoyed the Duchess, though she had the compensation of having been proved perfectly right in her prejudice against pedlars, and her dislike of her son's courier. She sent for Eustacie to tell her privately of the loss, and of course the young mother at once turned pale and exclaimed, 'The wicked one! Ah! what a blessing that I gave my little darling none of his dose!'
'Hein? You had some from him then!' demanded the Duchess with displeasure.
'No, Madame, thanks, thanks to you. Oh! I never will be self-willed and naughty again. Forgive me, Madame.' And down she dropped on her knee, with clasped hands and glistening eyes.
'Forgive you, silly child, for what?' said Madame de Quinet, nearly laughing.
'Ah! for the angry, passionate thoughts I had! Ah! Madame, I was all but giving the stuff to my little angel in very spite—and then—-' Eutacie's voice was drowned in passion of tears, and she devoured the old lady's hand with her kisses.
'Come, come,' said the Duchess, 'let us be reasonable. A man may be a thief, but it does not follow that he is a poisoner.'
'Nay, that will we see,' cried Eutacie. 'He was resolved that the little lamb should not escape, and he left a flask for her with Mademoiselle Perrot. I will fetch it, if Madame will give me leave. Oh, the great mercy of Heaven that made her so well that I gave her none!'
Madame de Quinet's analytic powers did not go very far; and would probably have decided against the syrup if it had been nothing but virgin honey. She was one who fully believed that her dear Queen Jeanne had been poisoned with a pair of gloves, and she had unlimited faith in the powers of evil possessed by Rene of Milan. Of course, she detected the presence of a slow poison, whose effects would have been attributed to the ailment it was meant to cure; and though her evidence was insufficient, she probably did Ercole no injustice. She declined testing the compound on any unfortunate dog or cat, but sealed it up in the presence of Gardon, Eutacie, and Mademoiselle Perrot, to be produced against the pedlar if ever he should be caught.
Then she asked Eutacie if there was any reason to suspect that he recognized her. Eutacie related the former dealings with him, when she had sold him her jewels and her hair, but she had no notion of his being the same person whom she had seen when at Montpipeau. Indeed, he had altered his appearance so much that he had been only discovered at Nid-de-Merle by eyes sharpened by distrust of his pretensions to magic arts.
Madame de Quinet, however, concluded that Eutacie had been known, or else that her jewels had betrayed her, and that the man must have been employed by her enemies. If it had not been the depth of winter, she would have provided for the persecuted lady's immediate transmission to England; but he storms of the Bay of Biscay would have made this impossible in the state of French navigation, even if Isaac Gardon had been in a condition to move; for the first return of cold had brought back severe rheumatic pains, and with them came a shortness of breath which even the Duchess did not know to be the token of heart complaint. He was confined to his room, and it was kneeling by his bedside that Eutacie poured out her thankfulness for her child's preservation, and her own repentance for the passing fit of self-will and petulance. The thought of Rayonette's safety seemed absolutely to extinguish the fresh anxiety that had arisen since it had become evident that her enemies no longer supposed her dead, but were probably upon her traces. Somehow, danger had become almost a natural element to her, and having once expressed her firm resolution that nothing should separate her from her adopted father, to whom indeed her care became constantly more necessary, she seemed to occupy herself very little with the matter; she nursed him as merrily as ever, and left to him and Madame de Quinet the grave consultations as to what was to be done for her security. There was a sort of natural buoyancy about her that never realized a danger till it came, and then her spirit was roused to meet it.
CHAPTER XXXVI. SPELL AND POTION
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw All the power this charm doth owe MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Her rival lived! The tidings could not but be communicated to Diane de Selinville, when her father set out en grande tenue to demand his niece from the Duke de Quinet. This, however, was not till spring was advancing; for the pedlar had not been able to take a direct route back to Nid-de-Merle, since his first measure had necessarily been to escape into a province where the abstraction of a Huguenot nobleman's despatches would be considered as a meritorious action. Winter weather, and the practice of his profession likewise, delayed Ercole so much that it was nearly Easter before he brought his certain intelligence to the Chevalier, and to the lady an elixir of love, clear and coloured as crystal, and infallible as an inspirer of affection.
Should she administer it, now that she knew her cousin not to be the lawful object of affection she had so long esteemed him, but, as he persisted in considering himself, a married man? Diane had more scruples than she would have had a year before, for she had not so long watched and loved one so true and conscientious as Berenger de Ribaumont without having her perceptions elevated; but at the same time the passion of love had become intensified, both by long continuance and by resistance. She had attached herself, believing him free, and her affections could not be disentangled by learning that he was bound—rather the contrary.
Besides, there was plenty of sophistry. Her father had always assured her of the invalidity of the marriage, without thinking it necessary to dwell on his own arrangements for making it invalid, so that was no reasonable ground of objection; and a lady of Diane's period, living in the world where she had lived, would have had no notion of objecting to her lover for a previous amour, and as such was she bidden to rank Berenger's relations with Eutacie. And there was the less scruple on Eutacie's account, because the Chevalier, knowing that the Duchess had a son and two grandsons, had conceived a great terror that she meant to give his niece to one of them; and this would be infinitely worse, both for the interests of the family and of their party, than even her reunion with the young Baron. Even Narcisse, who on his return had written to Paris a grudging consent to the experiment of his father and sister, had allowed that the preservation of Berenger's life was needful till Eutacie should be in their power so as to prevent such a marriage as that! To Diane, the very suggestion became certainty: she already saw Eutacie's shallow little heart consoled and her vanity excited by these magnificent prospects, and she looked forward to the triumph of her own constancy, when Berenger should find the image so long enshrined in his heart crumble in its sacred niche.
Yet a little while then would she be patient, even though nearly a year had passed and still she saw no effect upon her prisoners, unless, indeed, Philip had drunk of one of her potions by mistake and his clumsy admiration was the consequence. The two youths went on exactly in the same manner, without a complaint, without a request, occupying themselves as best they might—Berenger courteously attentive recovered his health, and the athletic powers displayed by the two brothers when wrestling, fencing, or snow-balling in the courtyard, were the amazement and envy of their guard. Twice in the course of the winter there had been an alarm of wolves, and in their eagerness and excitement about this new sport, they had accepted the Chevalier's offer of taking their parole for the hunt. They had then gone forth with a huge posse of villagers, who beat the woods with their dogs till the beast was aroused from its lair and driven into the alleys, where waited gentlemen, gendarmes, and game keepers with their guns. These two chases were chiefly memorable to Berenger, because in the universal intermingling of shouting peasants he was able in the first to have some conversation with Eutacie's faithful protector Martin, who told him the incidents of her wanderings, with tears in his eyes, and blessed him for his faith that she was not dead; and in the second, he actually found himself in the ravine of the Grange du Temple. No need to ask, every voice was shouting the name, and though the gendarmes were round him and he durst not speak to Rotrou, still he could reply with significative earnestness to the low bow with which the farmer bent to evident certainty that here was the imprisoned Protestant husband of the poor lady. Berenger wore his black vizard mask as had been required of him, but the man's eyes followed him, as though learning by heart the outline of his tall figure. The object of the Chevalier's journey was, of course, a secret from the prisoners, who merely felt its effects by having their meals served to them in their own tower; and when he returned after about a month's absence though him looking harassed, aged, and so much out of humour that he could scarcely preserve his usual politeness. In effect he was greatly chagrined.
'That she is in their hands is certain, the hypocrites!' he said to his daughter and sister; 'and no less so that they have designs on her; but I let them know that these could be easily traversed.'
'But where is she, the unhappy apostate child?' said the Abbess. 'They durst not refuse her to you.'
'I tell you they denied all present knowledge of her. The Duke himself had the face to make as though he never heard of her. He had no concern with his mother's household and guests forsooth! I do not believe he has; the poor fellow stands in awe of that terrible old heretic dragon, and keeps aloof from her as much as he can. But he is, after all, a beau jeune home; nor should I be surprised if he were the girl's gay bridegroom by this time, though I gave him a hint that there was an entanglement about the child's first marriage which, by French law, would invalidate any other without a dispensation from the Pope.'
'A hard nut that for a heretic,' laughed the Abbess.
'He acted the ignorant—knew nothing about the young lady; but had the civility to give me a guide and an escort to go to Quinet. Ma foi! I believe they were given to hinder me—take me by indirect roads, make me lose time at chateaux. When I arrived at the grim old chateau—a true dungeon, precise as a convent—there was the dame, playing the Queen Jeanne as well as she could, and having the insolence to tell me that it was true that Madame la Baronne de Ribaumont, as she was pleased to call her, had honoured her residence for some months, but that she had now quitted it, and she flatly refused to answer any question whither she was gone! The hag! she might at least have had the decorum to deny all knowledge of her, but nothing is more impertinent that the hypocritical sincerity of the heretics.'
'But her people,' exclaimed the Abbess; 'surely some of them knew, and could be brought to speak.'
'All the servants I came in contact with played the incorruptible; but still I have done something. There were some fellows in the village who are not at their ease under that rule. I caused my people to inquire them out. They knew nothing more than that the old heretic Gardon with his family had gone away in Madame la Duchesse's litter, but whither they could not tell. But the cabaretier there is furious secretly with the Quinets for having spoilt his trade by destroying the shrine at the holy well, and I have made him understand that it will be for his profit to send me off intelligence so soon as there is any communication between them and the lady. I made the same arrangement with a couple of gendarmes of the escort the Duke gave me. So at least we are safe for intelligence such as would hinder a marriage.'
'But they will be off to England!' said the Abbess.
'I wager they will again write to make sure of a reception. Moreover, I have set that fellow Ercole and others of his trade to keep a strict watch on all the roads leading to the ports, and give me due notice of their passing thither. We have law on our side, and, did I once claim her, no one could resist my right. Or should the war break out, as is probable, then could my son sweep their whole province with his troops. This time she cannot escape us.
The scene that her father's words and her own imagination conjured up, of Eustacie attracting the handsome widower-duke, removed all remaining scruples from Madame de Selinville. For his own sake, the Baron must be made to fulfil the prophecy of the ink-pool, and allow his prison doors to be opened by love. Many and many a tender art did Diane rehearse; numerous were her sighs; wakeful, languishing, and restless her nights and days; and yet, whatever her determination to practise upon her cousin the witcheries that she had learnt in the Escadron de la Reine-mere, and seen played off effectually where there was not one grain of love to inspire them, her powers and her courage always failed her in the presence of him whom she sought to attract. His quiet reserve and simplicity always disconcerted her, and any attempt at blandishment that he could not mistake was always treated by him as necessarily an accidental error, as if any other supposition would render her despicable; and yet there was now and then a something that made her detect an effort in his restraint, as if it were less distaste than self-command. Her brother had contemptuously acquiesced in the experiment made by herself and her father, and allowed that so long as there was any danger of the Quinet marriage, the Baron's existence was needful. He would not come to Nid-de-Merle, nor did they want him there, knowing that he could hardly have kept his hands off his rival. But when the war broke out again in the summer of 1575 he joined that detachment of Guise's army which hovered about the Loire, and kept watch on the Huguenot cities and provinces of Western France. The Chevalier made several expeditions to confer with his son, and to keep up his relations with the network of spies whom he had spread over the Quinet provinces. The prisoners were so much separated from all intercourse with the dependants that they were entirely ignorant of the object of his absence from home. On these occasions they never left their tower and its court, and had no enlivenment save an occasional gift of dainties or message of inquiry from the ladies at Bellaise. These were brought by a handsome but slight, pale lad called Aime de Selinville, a relative of the late Count, as he told them, who had come to act as a gentleman attendant upon the widowed countess. The brothers rather wondered how he was disposed of at the convent, but all there was so contrary to their preconceived notions that they acquiesced. The first time he arrived it was on a long, hot summer day, and he then brought them a cool iced sherbet in two separate flasks, that for Philip being mixed with wine, which was omitted for Berenger; and the youth stood lingering and watching, anxious, he said, to be able to tell his lady how the drinks were approved. Both were excellent, and to that effect the prisoners replied; but no sooner was the messenger gone than Berenger said smilingly, 'That was a love potion, Phil.'
'And you drank it!' cried Philip, in horror.
'I did not think of it till I saw how the boy's eyes were gazing curiously at me as I swallowed it. You look at me as curiously, Phil. Are you expecting it to work? Shall I be at the fair lady's feet next time we meet?'
'How can you defy it, Berry?'
'Nay, Phil; holy wedded love is not to be dispelled by a mountebank's decoction.'
'But suppose it were poisonous, Berry, what can be done?' cried Philip, starting up in dismay.
'Then you would go home, Phil, and this would be over. But'—seeing his brother's terror—'there is no fear of that. She is not like to wish to poison me.'
And the potion proved equally ineffective on mind and body, as indeed did all the manipulations exercised upon a little waxen image that was supposed to represent M. le Baron. Another figure was offered to Diane, in feminine form, with black beads for eyes and a black plaster for hair, which, when stuck full of pins and roasted before the fire, was to cause Eustacie to peak and pine correspondingly. But from this measure Diane shrank. If aught was done against her rival it must be by her father and brother, not by herself; and she would not feel herself directly injuring her little cousin, nor sinking herself below him whom she loved. Once his wife, she would be good for ever, held up by his strength.
Meantime Berenger had received a greater shock than she or her father understood in the looking over of some of the family parchments kept in store at the castle. The Chevalier, in showing them to him, had chiefly desired to glorify the family by demonstrating how its honours had been won, but Berenger was startled at finding that Nid-de-Merle had been, as it appeared to him, arbitrarily and unjustly declared to be forfeited by the Sieur de Bellaise, who had been thrown into prison by Louis XI. for some demonstration in favour of the poor Duke de Berri, and granted to the favourite Ribaumont. The original grant was there, and to his surprise he found it was to male heirs—the male heirs alone of the direct line of the Ribaumont—to whom the grant was made. How, then, came it to Eustacie? The disposal had, with almost equal injustice, been changed by King Henry II. and the late Count de Ribaumont in favour of the little daughter whose union with the heir of the elder line was to conclude all family feuds. Only now did Berenger understand what his father had said on his death-bed of flagrant injustice committed in his days of darkness. He felt that he was reaping the reward of the injuries committed against the Chevalier and his son on behalf of the two unconscious children. He would willingly at once have given up all claim to the Nid-de-Merle estate—and he was now of age; two birthdays had passed in his captivity and brought him to years of discretion—but he had no more power than before to dispose of what was the property of Eustacie and her child; and the whole question of the validity of his marriage would be given up by his yielding even the posthumous claim that might have devolved on him in case of Eustacie's death. This would be giving up her honour, a thing impossible.
'Alas!' he sighed, 'my poor father might well say he had bound a heavy burthen round my neck.'
And from that time his hopes sank lower as the sense of the justice of his cause left him. He could neither deny his religion nor his marriage, and therefore could do nothing for his own deliverance; and he knew himself to be suffering in the cause of a great injustice; indeed, to be bringing suffering on the still more innocent Philip.
The once proudly indifferent youth was flagging now; was losing appetite, flesh, and colour; was unwilling to talk or to take exercise; and had a wan and drooping air that was most painful to watch. It seemed as if the return of summer brought a sense of the length and weariness of the captivity, and that the sunshine and gaiety of the landscape had become such a contrast to the captives' deadness of spirit that they could hardly bear to behold them, and felt the dull prison walls more congenial to their feelings than the gaiety of the summer hay and harvest-fields.
CHAPTER XXXVII. BEATING AGAINST THE BARS
My horse is weary of the stall, And I am sick of captive thrall.—LADY OF THE LAKE
Letters! They were hailed like drops of water in a thirsty land. No doubt they had been long on the way, ere they had reached the hands of the Chevalier de Ribaumont, and it was quite possible that they had been read and selected; but, as Berenger said, he defied any Frenchman to imitate either Lord Walwyn's style or Sir Marmaduke's, and when late in the autumn the packet was delivered to him, the two captives gloated over the very outsides before they opened them.
The first intelligence that greeted them made them give a cry of amusement and surprise. Lady Thistlewood, whose regrets that each of her girls was not a boy had passed into a proverb, had at length, in Dolly's seventh year, given birth to a son on Midsummer Day.
'Well,' said Philip, sighing, 'we must drink his health tonight! It is well, if we are to rot here, that some one should make it up to them!'
'And join Walwyn and Hurst!' said Berenger; and then both faces grew much graver, as by these letters, dated three months since, they understood how many they must have missed, and likewise that nothing had been heard of themselves since they had left Paris sixteen months ago. Their letters, both to their relations and to Sir Francis Walsingham, had evidently been suppressed; and Lord North, who had succeeded Walsingham as ambassador, had probably been misled by design, either by Narcisse de Nid-de-Merle himself, or by some of his agents, for Lord Walwyn had heard from him that the young men were loitering among the castles and garrisons of Anjou, leading a gay and dissipated life, and that it was universally believed that the Baron de Ribaumont had embraced the Catholic faith, and would shortly be presented to Henry III. to receive the grant of the Selinville honours, upon his marriage with his cousin, the widow of the last of the line. With much earnestness and sorrow did good old Lord Walwyn write to his grandson, conjuring him to bethink himself of his some, his pure faith, his loving friends, and the hopes of his youth: and, at least, if he himself had been led away by the allurements of the other party, to remember that Philip had been intrusted to him in full confidence, and to return him to his home. 'It was grief and shame to him,' said the good old man, 'to look at Sir Marmaduke, who had risked his son in the charge of one hitherto deemed trustworthy; and even if Berenger had indeed forgotten and cast away those whom he had once seemed to regard with love and duty, he commanded him to send home Philip, who owed an obedience to his father that could not be gainsaid.' Lord Walwyn further bade his grandson remember that the arrangements respecting his inheritance had been made in confidence that his heir was English in heart and faith, and that neither the Queen nor his own conscience would allow him to let his inheritance pass into French of Papist hands. There was scarcely a direct reproach, but the shaken, altered handwriting showed how stricken the aged man must be; and after his signature was added one still more trembling line, 'An ye return not speedily, ye will never see the old grandsire more.'
Berenger scarcely finished the letter through his burning tears of agony, and then, casting it from him, began to pace the room in fierce agitation, bursting out into incoherent exclamations, grasping at his hair, even launching himself against the massive window with such frenzied gestures and wild words that Philip, who had read through all with his usual silent obtuseness, became dismayed, and, laying hold of him, said, 'Prithee, brother, do not thus! What serves such passion?'
Berenger burst into a strange loud laugh at the matter-of-fact tone. 'What serves it! what serves anything!' he cried, 'but to make me feel what a miserable wretch I am? But he will die, Philip—he will die—not having believed me! How shall we keep ourselves from the smooth-tongued villain's throat? That I should be thus judged a traitor by my grandfather——'
And with a cry as of bodily anguish, he hid his face on the table, and groaned as he felt the utter helplessness of his strong youth in bonds.
'It can't be helped,' was the next of the unconsolatory platitudes uttered by Philip, who always grew sullen and dogged when his brother's French temperament broke forth under any sudden stroke. 'If they will believe such things, let them! You have not heard what my father says to it.'
'It will be all the same,' groaned Berenger.
'Nay! now that's a foul slander, and you should be ashamed of doing my father such wrong,' said Philip, 'Listen;' and he read: 'I will believe no ill of the lad no more than of thee, Phil. It is but a wild-goose chase, and the poor young woman is scarce like to be above ground; but, as I daily tell them, 'tis hard a man should forfeit his land for seeking his wife. My Lord North sends rumours that he is under Papist guiding, and sworn brother with the Black Ribaumonts; and my Lady, his grandmother, is like to break her heart, and my Lord credits them more than he ought, and never a line as a token comes from you. Then there's Dame Annora, as proud of the babe as though neither she nor woman born ever had a son before, and plains over him, that both his brothers should be endowed, and he but a younger son. What will be the end on't I cannot tell. I will stand up for the right as best man may do, and never forget that Berry is her first-born, and that his child may be living; but the matter is none of mine, and my Lord is very aged, nor can a man meddle between his wife and her father. So this I tell you that you may make your brother lay it to heart. The sooner he is here the better, if he be still, as I verily believe and maintain him to be, an honest English heart that snaps his fingers at French papistry.' 'There,' conclude Philip triumphantly, 'he knows an honest man! He's friend and good father to you as much as ever. Heed none of the rest. He'll never let this little rogue stand in your light.'
'as if I cared for that!' said Berenger, beginning his caged-tiger walk again, and, though he tried to repress his anguish, breaking out at times into fierce revilings of the cruel toils that beset him, and despairing lamentations over those beloved ones at home, with sobs, groans, and tears, such as Philip could not brook to witness. Both because they were so violent and mourn-full, and because he thought them womanish, though in effect no woman's grief could have had half that despairing force. The fierte of the French noble, however, came to his aid. At the first sound of the great supper-bell he dashed away his tears, composed his features, washed his face, and demanded haughtily of Philip, whether there were any traces in his looks that the cruel hypocrite, their jailer, could gloat over.
And with proud step and indifferent air he marched into the hall, answered the Chevalier's polite inquiry whether the letter had brought good tidings by coolly thanking him and saying that all at home were well; and when he met the old man's inquiring glance out of the little keen black bead in the puckered, withered eyelid, he put a perfectly stony unmeaningness into his own gaze, till his eyes looked like the blue porcelain from China so much prized by the Abbess. He even played at chess all the evening with such concentrated attention as to be uniformly victorious.
Yet half the night Philip heard suppressed moans and sobs—then knew that he was on his knees—then, after long and comparatively silent weeping, he lay down again, and from the hour when he awoke in the morning, he returned no more to the letters; and though for some little time more sad and dispirited, he seemed to have come to regard the misjudgment at home as a part of the burthen he was already bearing.
That burthen was, however, pressing more heavily. The temperaments of the two brothers so differed that while the French one was prostrated by the agony of a stroke, and then rallied patiently to endure the effects, the English character opposed a passive resistance to the blow, gave no sign of grief or pain, and from that very determination suffered a sort of exhaustion that made the effects of the evil more and more left. Thus, from the time Philip's somewhat tardy imagination had been made to realize his home, his father, and his sisters, the home-sickness, and weariness of his captivity, which had already begun to undermine his health and spirits, took increasing effect.
He made no complaint—he never expressed a wish—but, in the words of the prophet, he seemed 'pining away on his feet.' He did not sleep, and though, to avoid remark, he never failed to appear at meals, he scarcely tasted food. He never willingly stirred from cowering over the fire, and was so surly and ill-tempered that only Berenger's unfailing good-humour could have endured it. Even a wolf-hunt did not stir him. He only said he hated outlandish beasts, and that it was not like chasing the hare in Dorset. His calf-love for Madame de Selinville had entirely faded away in his yearnings after home. She was only one of the tediously recurring sights of his captivity, and was loathed like all the rest. The regulation rides with the Chevalier were more detestable than ever, and by and by they caused such fatigue that Berenger perceived that his strength must be warning, and became so seriously alarmed that one evening, when Philip had barely dragged himself to the hall, tasted nothing but a few drops of wine, and then dropped into an uneasy slumber in his chair, he could not but turn to the Chevalier an appealing, indignant countenance, as he said, in a low but quivering voice, 'You see, sir, how he is altered!'
'Alas! fair nephew, it is but too plain. He is just of the age when such restraint tells severely upon the health.'