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From Shadow to Sunshine.
There remains yet one strange and terrible episode of which I must tell, though indeed, I thank God, I was in no way a witness of it. A week after the events which I have set down, while Marie still lay prostrate at the convent, and I abode at my old hotel in Avranches, assisting to the best of my power in the inquiry being held by the local magistrate, an officer of police arrived from Havre; and when the magistrate had heard his story, he summoned me from the ante-room where I was waiting, and bade me also listen to the story. And this it was:
At the office where tickets were taken for a ship on the point to make the voyage to America, among all the crowd about to cross, it chanced that two people met one another--an elderly woman whose face was covered by a thick veil, and a short spare man who wore a fair wig and large red whiskers. Yet, notwithstanding these disguises, the pair knew one another. For at first sight of the woman, the man cowered away and tried to hide himself; while she, perceiving him, gave a sudden scream and clutched eagerly at the pocket of her dress.
Seeing himself feared, the ruffian took courage, his quick brain telling him that the woman also was seeking to avoid recognition. And when she had taken her ticket, he contrived to see the book and, finding a name which he did not know as hers, he tracked her to the inn where she was lodging till the vessel should start. When he walked into the inn, she shrank before him and turned pale--for he caught her with the veil off her face--and again she clutched at her pocket. He sat down near her: for a while she sat still; then she rose and walked out into the air, as though she went for a walk. But he, suspecting rightly that she would not return, tracked her again to another inn, meaner and more obscure than the first, and, walking in, he sat down by her. And again the third time this was done: and there were people who had been at each of the inns to speak to it: and those at the third inn said that the woman looked as though Satan himself had taken his place by her--so full of helplessness and horror was she; while the man smiled under alert bright eyes that would not leave her face, except now and again for a swift watchful glance round the room. For he was now hunter and hunted both; yet, like a dog that will be slain rather than loose his hold, he chose to risk his own life, if by that he might not lose sight of the unhappy woman. Two lives had been spent already in the quest: a third was nought to him; and the woman's air and clutching of her pocket had set an idea afloat in his brain. The vessel was to sail at six the next morning; and it was eight in the evening when the man sat down opposite the woman in the third inn they visited--it was no better than a drinking shop near the quays. For half an hour they sat, and there was that in their air that made them observed. Suddenly the man crossed over to the woman and whispered in her ear. She started, crying low yet audibly, "You lie!" But he spoke to her again; and then she rose and paid her score and walked out of the inn on to the quays, followed by her unrelenting attendant. It was dark now, or quite dusk; and a loiterer at the door distinguished their figures among the passing crowd but for a few yards: then they disappeared; and none was found who had seen them again, either under cover or in the open air, that night.
And for my part, I like not to think how the night passed for that wretched old woman; for at some hour and in some place, near by the water, the man found her alone, and ran his prey to the ground before the bloodhounds that were on his track could come up with them.
Indeed he almost won safety, or at least respite; for the ship was already moving when she was boarded by the police, who, searching high and low, came at last on the spare man with the red whiskers; these an officer rudely plucked off and the fair wig with them, and called the prisoner by the name of Pinceau. The little man made one rush with a knife, and, foiled in that, another for the side of the vessel. But his efforts were useless. He was handcuffed and led on shore. And when he was searched, the stones which had gone to compose the great treasure of the family of Saint-Maclou--the Cardinal's Necklace--were found hidden here and there about him; but the setting was gone.
And the woman? Let me say it briefly. Great were her sins, and not the greatest of them was the theft of the Cardinal's Necklace. Yet the greater that she took in hand to do was happily thwarted; and I pray that she found mercy when the deep dark waters of the harbor swallowed her on that night, and gave back her body to a shameful burial.
* * * * * * *
In the quiet convent by the shores of the bay the wind of the world, with its burden of sin and sorrow, blows faintly and with tempered force: the talk of idle, eager tongues cannot break across the comforting of kind voices and the sweet strains of quiet worship. Raymond Pinceau was dead, and Jacques Bontet condemned to lifelong penal servitude; and the world had ceased to talk of the story that had been revealed at the trial of these men, and--what the world loved even more to discuss--of how much of the story had not been revealed.
For although M. de Vieuville, President of the Court which tried Bontet, and father of Alfred de Vieuville, that friend of the duke's who was to have acted at the duel, complimented me on the candor with which I gave my evidence, yet he did not press me beyond what was strictly necessary to bring home to the prisoners the crimes of murder and attempted robbery with which they were charged. Not till I knew the Judge, having been introduced to him by his son, did he ask me further of the matter; and then, sitting on the lawn of his country-house, I told him the whole story, as it has been set down in this narrative, saving only sundry matters which had passed between the duchess and myself on the one hand, and between Marie Delhasse and myself on the other. Yet I do not think that my reticence availed me much against an acumen trained and developed by dialectic struggles with generations of criminals. For the first question which M. de Vieuville put to me was this:
"And what of the girl, Mr. Aycon? She has suffered indeed for the sins of others."
But young Alfred, who was standing by, laid a hand on his father's shoulder and said with a laugh:
"Father, when Mr. Aycon leaves us tomorrow, it is to visit the convent at Avranches." And the old man held out his hand to me, saying:
"You do well."
To the convent at Avranches then I went one bright morning in the spring of the next year; and again I walked with the stately old lady in the little burial ground. Yet she was a little less stately, and I thought that there was what the profane might call a twinkle in her eye, as she deplored Marie's disinclination to become a permanent inmate of the establishment over which she presided. And on her lips came an indubitable smile when I leaped back from her in horror at the thought.
"There would be none here to throw her troubles in her teeth," pursued the Mother Superior, smiling still. "None to remind her of her mother's shame; none to lay snares for her; none to remind her of the beauty which has brought so much woe on her; no men to disturb her life with their angry conflicting passions. Does not the picture attract you, Mr. Aycon?"
"As a picture," said I, "it is almost perfect. There is but one blemish in it."
"A blemish? I do not perceive it."
"Why, madame, I cannot find anywhere in your canvas the figure of myself."
With a laugh she turned away and passed through the arched gateway. And I saw my friend, the little nun who had first opened the door to me when I came seeking the duchess, pass by and pause a moment to look at me. Then I was left alone till Marie came to me through the gateway: and I sprang up to meet her.
I have been candid throughout, and I will be candid now--even though my plain speaking strikes not at myself, but at Marie, who must forgive me as best she may. For I believe she meant to marry me from the very first; and I doubt whether if I had taken the dismissal she gave, I should have been allowed to go far on my solitary way. Indeed I think she did but want to hear me say how that all she urged was lighter than a feather against my love for her, and, if that were her desire, she was gratified to the full; seeing that for a moment she frightened me, and I outdid every lover since the world began (it cannot be that I deceive myself in thinking that) in vehemence and insistence. So that she reproved me, adding:
"You can hardly speak the truth in all that you say: for at first, you know, you were more than half in love with the Duchess of Saint-Maclou."
For a moment I was silenced. Then I looked at Marie: and I found in her words no more a rebuke, but a provocation--aye, a challenge to prove that by no possibility could I, who loved her so passionately, ever have been so much as half in love with any woman in the whole world, the Duchess of Saint-Maclou not excepted. And prove it I did that morning in the burial ground of the convent, to my own complete satisfaction, and thereby overcame the last doubts which afflicted Marie Delhasse.
And if, in spite of that most exhaustive and satisfactory proof, the thing proved remained not much more true than the thing disproved--why, it is not my fault. For Love has a virtue of oblivion--yes, and a better still: that which is past he, exceeding in power all Olympus besides, makes as though it had never been, never could have been, and was from the first entirely impossible, absurd, and inconceivable. And for an instance of what I say--if indeed a further example than my own be needed, which should not be the case--let us look at the Duchess of Saint-Maclou herself.
For, if I were half in love with the duchess, which I by no means admit, modesty shall not blind me from holding that the duchess was as good a half in love with me. Yet, when I had been married to Marie Delhasse some six months, I received a letter from my good friend Gustave de Berensac, informing me of his approaching union with Mme. de Saint-Maclou. And, if I might judge from Gustave's letter, he repudiated utterly the idea which I have ventured to suggest concerning the duchess.
Two other facts Gustave mentioned--both of them, I think, with a touch of apology. The first was that the duchess, being unable to endure the horrible associations now indissolubly connected with the Cardinal's Necklace, of which she had become owner for the term of her life--
"What? Won't she wear it?" asked my wife at this point: she was (as wives will) leaning over my shoulder as I read the letter.
It was what I also had expected to read; but what I did read was that the duchess, ingeniously contriving to save both her feelings and her diamonds, had caused the stones to be set in a tiara--"which," continued Gustave (I am sure he was much in love) "will not have any of the unpleasant associations connected with the necklace."
And the second fact? It was this--just this, though it was wrapped up in all the roundabout phrases and softened by all the polite expressions of friendship of which Gustave was master,--yet just this,--that he was not in a position to invite myself and my wife to the wedding! For the little duchess, consistent to the end, in spite of his entreaties and protests, had resolutely and entirely declined to receive Mrs. Aycon!
I finished the letter and looked up at Marie. And Marie, looking thoughtfully down at the paper, observed:
"I always told you that she was fond of you, you know."
But, for my part, I hope that Marie's explanation is not the true one. I prefer to attribute the duchess' refusal--in which, I may state, she steadily persists--to some mistaken and misplaced sense of propriety; or, if that fails me, then I will set it down to the fact that Marie's presence would recall too many painful and distressing scenes, and be too full of unpleasant associations. Thus understood, the duchess' refusal was quite natural and agreed completely with what she had done in respect of the necklace--for it was out of the question to turn the edge of the difficulty by converting Marie into a tiara!
So the duchess will not receive my wife. But I forgive her--for, beyond doubt, but for the little duchess and that indiscretion of hers, I should not have received my wife myself!
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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