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WIDOW AND WIFE
We had avoided Paris, coming through Troyes and Orleans, and thus our sad strange journey lasted a full month. Poor old M. de Nidemerle had, of course, been prepared for our coming, and he came out in his coach to meet us at the cross-roads. My brother saw the mourning liveries approaching, and gave me notice. I descended from my carriage, intending to go to him in his, but he anticipated me; and there, in the middle of the road, the poor old man embraced me, weeping floods of passionate tears of grief. He was a small man, shrunk with age, and I found him clinging to me so like a child that I felt an almost motherly sense of protection and tenderness towards his forlorn old age; but my English shyness was at the moment distressed at the sense of all the servants staring at such a meeting, and I cried out: 'Oh, sir! you should not have come thus.' 'What can I do, but show all honour to the heroic wife of my dear child?' sobbed he; and, indeed, I found afterwards that my persistence in bringing home my dearest to the tombs of his forefathers had won for me boundless gratitude and honour. They took the hearse to the church of the convent at Bellaise, where its precious burthen was to rest. The obsequies, requiem, and funeral mass were to take place the next day, and in the meantime I accompanied the Marquis to the chateau, and we spent the evening and great part of the night in talking of him whom we had both loved so dearly, and in weeping together.
Then came the solemn and mournful day of the funeral. I was taken early to the convent, where, among the nuns behind the grille, I might assist at these last rites.
Thickly veiled, I looked at no one except that I curtsied my thanks to the Abbess before kneeling down by the grating looking into the choir. My grief had always been too deep for tears, and on that day I was blessed in a certain exaltation of thoughts which bore me onward amid the sweet chants to follow my Philippe, my brave, pure- hearted, loving warrior, onto his rest in Paradise, and to think of the worship that he was sharing there.
So I knelt quite still, but by and by I was sensible of a terrible paroxysm of weeping from some one close to me. I could scarcely see more than a black form when I glanced round, but it seemed to me that it was sinking; I put out my arm in support, and I found a head on my shoulder. I knew who it must be--my husband's poor little sister, Madame d'Aubepine, and I held my arm round her with an impulse of affection, as something that was his; but before all was over, I was sure that she was becoming faint, and at last I only moved just in time to receive her in my lap and arms, as she sank down nearly, if not quite, unconscious.
I tore back the heavy veil that was suffocating her, and saw a tiny thin white face, not half so large as my little Gaspard's round rosy one. Numbers of black forms hovered about with water and essences; and one tall figure bent to lift the poor child from me, apologizing with a tone of reproof, and declaring that Madame la Comtesse was ashamed to inconvenience Madame.
'No,' I said; 'one sister could not inconvenience another,' and I felt the feeble hand stealing round my waist, and saw a sort of smile on the thin little lips, which brought back one look of my Philippe's. I threw off my own veil, and raised her in my arms so as to kiss her, and in that embrace I did indeed gain a sister.
I did not heed the scolding and the murmuring; I lifted her; she was very small, and light as a feather; and I was not merely tall, but very strong, so I carried her easily to a chamber, which one of the nuns opened for us, and laid her on the bed. She clung to me, and when some one brought wine, I made her drink it, and prayed that they would leave us to ourselves a little while.
I know now that nothing but the privileges of my position on that day would have prevailed to get that grim and terrible dame de compagnie out of the room. However, we were left alone, and the first thing the poor young thing did when she could speak or move, was to throw herself into my arms and cry:
'Tell me of him!'
'He sent his love. He commended you to me,' I began.
'Did he? Oh, my dear hero! And how is he looking?'
So it was of her husband, not her brother, that she was thinking. I gave me a pang, and yet I could not wonder; and alas, d'Aubepine had not given me any message at all for her. However, I told her what I thought would please her--of his handsome looks, and his favour with the Duke of Enghien, and her great dark eyes began to shine under their tear-swollen lids; but before long, that terrible woman knocked at the door again to say that Madame la Comtesse's carriage was ready, and that M. le Marquis awaited Madame la Vicomtesse.
We arranged our disordered dress, and went down hand-in-hand. The Marquis and the Abbess both embraced the poor little Countess, and I assured her that we would meet again, and be much together.
'Madame la Comtesse will do herself the honour of paying her respects to Madame la Vicomtesse,' said the dame de compagnie with the elder M. d'Aubepine, and had regulated her household of late years.
'I congratulate myself on not belonging to that respectable household,' said my brother.
M. de Nidemerle laughed, and said the good lady had brought with her a fair share of Calvinist severity. In fact, it was reported that her conversion had been stimulated by the hope that she should be endowed with her family property, and bestowed in marriage on the young d'Aubepine, the father of the present youth, and that disappointment in both these expectations had embittered her life. I was filled with pity for my poor little sister-in-law, who evidently was under her yoke; and all the more when, a day or two later, the tow ladies came in great state to pay me a visit of ceremony, and I saw how pale and thin was the little Countess, and how cowed she seemed by the tall and severe duenna.
Little Gaspard was trotting about. The Marquis was delighted with the child, and already loved him passionately; and the little fellow was very good, and could amuse himself without troubling any one.
He took refuge with me from Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau; but as I held him to kiss his aunt, her eyes filled with tears; and when I asked whether her little girl could walk as well as he did, she faltered so that I was startled, fearing that the child might have died and I not have heard of it.
'She is out at nurse,' at last she murmured.
'Children are best at farms,' said Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau; 'Madame la Comtesse Douariere is not to be incommoded.' The old man held out his arms to my little boy, and said something of his being a pleasure instead of an inconvenience; but though the lady answered politely, she looked so severe that my poor child hid his face on my bosom and began to cry, by way of justifying her.
However, when she was gone, both the gentlemen agreed that the little fellow was quite right, and showed his sense, and that if they had been only two years old, they would have cried too.
That was all in my favour when I entreated M. de Nidemerle to let me have a visit from my sister-in-law,--not a mere call of ceremony, but a stay at the chateau long enough for me to get acquainted with her. Not only was she the only sister of my dear Philippe, but the Marquis, her uncle, was her guardian and only near relative, so that he had a right to insist, more especially as the old Countess was imbecile and bedridden.
I think he felt towards me much as he would have done if he had been shut up in a room with Gaspard, ready to give me anything I begged for, provided I would not cry. He was very good to me, and I could not but be sorry for the poor, bereaved, broken old man, and try to be a daughter to him; and thus our relations were very different from what they had been on our journey to Paris together in the coach. At any rate, he promised me that I should be gratified, and the day after my brother left us, he actually went over to Chateau d'Aubepine, and brought off his niece in the carriage with him, presenting her to me in the hall like the spoils of war. She was frightened, formal, and ceremonious all super time, but I thought she was beginning to thaw, and was more afraid of the Marquis than of me. We played at cards all the evening, the Cure being sent for to make up the set, and now and then I caught her great eyes looking at me wistfully; indeed, I was obliged to avoid them lest they should make me weep; for it was almost the look that my Philippe used to cast on me in those early days when we had not begun to know one another.
At last we went up to bed. The rooms were all en suite, and I had given her one opening into mine, telling her we would never shut the door save when she wished it. I saw her gazing earnestly at her brother's portrait and all the precious little objects consecrated to his memory, which I had arranged by my benitier and crucifix, but I did not expect her firs exclamation, when our woman had left us: 'Ah! Madame, how happy you are!'
'I was once!' I sighed.
'Ah! but you ARE happy. You have your child, and your husband loved you.'
'But your husband lives, and your children are well.'
'That may be. I never see them. I have only seen my daughter twice, and my son once, since they were born. They will not let them come to the chateau, and they say there is no road to the farms.'
'We will see to that,' I said, and I made her tell me where they were; but she knew no more of distances than I did, never going anywhere save in the great family coach. Poor child! When I called her Cecile, she burst into tears, and said no one had called her by that name since she had left her friend Amelie in the convent, and as to calling me Marguerite, Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau would be sure to say it was bourgeois and ill-bred to use familiar names, but then we need never let her hear us.
I took the poor little forlorn creature to sleep with me, and then, and in the course of the next day or two, the whole sad state of things came before me.
The little Cecile de Bellaise had been carried to a convent at Angers from the farm that she could just remember. Here she had spent all the happy days of her life. The nuns ere not strict, and they must have been very ignorant, for they had taught her nothing but her prayers, a little reading, some writing, very bad orthography, embroidery, and heraldry; but they were very good-natured, and had a number of pensionnaires who seemed to have all run wild together in the corridors and gardens, and played all sorts of tricks on the nuns. Sometimes Cecile told me some of these, and very unedifying they were,--acting ghosts in the passages, fastening up the cell doors, ringing the bells at unearthly hours, putting brushes or shoes in the beds, and the like practical jokes.
Suddenly, from the midst of these wild sports, while still a mere child under fourteen, Cecile was summoned to be married to Armand d'Aubepine, who was two years older, and was taken at once to Chateau d'Aubepine.
There was no more play for her; she had to sit upright embroidering under the eyes of Madame la Comtesse and of Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau; nor did she ever go out of doors except for a turn on the terrace with the ladies, or a drive in the great coach. Of course they were disappointed in having such a little unformed being on their hands, but they must have forgotten that they had ever been young themselves, when they forced her to conform rigidly to the life that suited them, and which they thought the only decorous thing for a lady of any age.
There was nothing else that was young near her except her husband, and he thought her an ugly little thing, and avoided her as much as possible. He had expected to be freed from his tutor on his marriage, and when he was disappointed, he was extremely displeased, and manifested his wrath by neglect of her. His governor must have been a very different one from my dear husband's beloved abbe, fro I know that if I had been five times as ugly and stupid as I was, my Philippe would have tried to love me, because it was his duty--and have been kind to me, because he could not be unkind to any one. But the Chevalier d'Aubepine had never learnt to care for any one's pleasure but his own; he was angry at, and ashamed of, the wife who had been imposed on him; he chafed and raged at not being permitted to join the army and see the world; and in the meantime he, with the connivance of his governor, from time to time escaped at night to Saumur, and joined in the orgies of the young officers in garrison there.
Nevertheless, through all his neglect, Cecile loved him with a passionate, faithful adoration, surpassing all words, just as I have seen a poor dog follow faithfully a savage master who gives him nothing but blows. She never said a word of complaint to me of him. All I gathered of this was from her simple self-betrayals, or from others, or indeed what I knew of himself; but the whole sustenance of that young heart had been his few civil words at times when he could make her useful to him. I am persuaded, too, that Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau exercised her spite in keeping the two young creatures from any childish or innocent enjoyments that might have drawn them together. If etiquette were the idol of that lady, I am sure that spite flavoured the incense she burned to it.
I think, if I had been in Cecile's position, I should either have gone mad, or have died under the restraint and dreariness; but she lived on in the dull dream of half-comprehended wretchedness, and gave birth to her daughter, but without being in the least cheered, for a peasant woman was in waiting, who carried the child off while she was still too much exhausted to have even kissed it. All she obtained was universal murmuring at the sex of the poor little thing. It seemed the climax of all her crimes, which might be involuntary, but for which she was made to suffer as much as if they had been her fault.
Her husband was more displeased than any one else; above all when he heard the news of Rocroy; and then it was that he devised the scheme of running away, and in discussing it with her became more friendly than ever before. Of course it was dreadful to her that he should go to the war, but the gratification of helping him, keeping his secret, plotting with him, getting a few careless thanks and promises, carried the day, and bore her through the parting. 'He really did embrace me of his own accord,' said the poor young creature; and it was on that embrace that she had ever since lived, in hope that when they should meet again he might find it possible to give her a few shreds of affection.
Of course, when she was found to have been cognizant of his departure, she was in the utmost disgrace. Rage at his evasion brought on the fit of apoplexy which cost the old count his life; and the blame was so laid upon her, not only by Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau, but by Madame and by her confessor, that she almost believed herself a sort of parricide; and she had not yet completed the course of penitential exercises that have been imposed on her.
By the time--more than half a year later--her son was born, the old countess had become too childish to be gratified for more than a moment. Indeed, poor Cecile herself was so ill that she survived only by a wonder, since no one cared whether she lived or died, except her own maid, who watched over her tenderly, and gave her, when she could read it, a letter from her husband upon the joyful news. She wore that letter, such as it was, next her heart, and never told her how my husband had absolutely stood over him while he wrote it.
So she recovered, if it can be called recovery--for her health had been shattered by all this want of the most care and consideration; she was very weak and nervous, and suffered constantly from headache, and her looks were enough to break one's heart. I suppose nothing could have made her beautiful, but she had a strange, worn, blighted, haggard, stunted look, quite dreadful for one not yet eighteen; she was very short, and fearfully thin and pale, but out of the sad little face there looked my Philippe's eyes, and now and then his smile.
After talking till late I fell asleep, and when I woke to dress for morning mass, I found that she had not slept at all, and had a frightful headache. I bade her lie still till I came back, and she seemed hardly able to believe in such luxury. Mademoiselle said nothing but resolution was wanting to shake off a headache.
'Have you found it so?' I asked.
'At any rate, it is better than the doses Mademoiselle gives me,' she said.
'You shall try my remedy this time,' I said; and I set out for the little village church, which stood at the garden-gate, with a fixed determination that this state of things--slow torture and murder, as it seemed to me--should not go on. If one work bequeathed to me by my dear Philippe was to take care of his uncle, another surely was to save and protect his sister.
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