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THE FIREBRAND OF THE BOCAGE.
Yes, the life at Nid de Merle was very peaceful. Just as exquisitely happy it was in spite of alarms, anxieties, perplexities, and discomforts, so when I contemplate my three years in Anjou I see that they were full of peace, though the sunshine of my life was over and Cecile had never come.
We had our children about us, for we took little Maurice d'Aubepine home as soon as possible; we followed the course of devotion and study traced for us by the Abbe; we attended to the wants of the poor, and taught their children the Catechism; we worked and lived like sisters, and I thought all that was life to me was over. I forgot that at twenty-two there is much life yet to come, and that one may go through many a vicissitude of feeling even though one's heart be in a grave.
The old Marquis did not long remain with us. He caught a severe cold in the winter, and had no strength to rally. Tryphena would have it that he sank from taking nothing but tisanes made of herbs; and that if she might only have given him a good hot sack posset, he would have recovered; but he shuddered at the thought, and when a doctor came from Saumur, he bled the poor old gentleman, faintings came on, and he died the next day. I was glad Tryphena's opinion was only expressed in English.
The poor old man had been very kind to me, and had made me love him better than I should have supposed to be possible when we crossed from Dover. The very last thing he had done was to write to my mother, placing his hotel at Paris at her disposal in case she and her son should find it expedient to leave England; and when his will was opened it proved that he had left me personal guardian and manager of the estates of his heir, my little Gaspard, now M. de Nidemerle, joining no one with me in the charge but my half-brother the Baron de Solivet.
I had helped him, read letters to him, and written them for him, and overlooked his accounts enough for the work not to be altogether new and strange to me, and I took it up eagerly. I had never forgotten the sermon by the holy Father Vincent, whom the Church has since acknowledged as a saint, and our excellent Abbe had heightened the impression that a good work lay prepared for me; but he warned me to be prudent, and I am afraid I was hot-headed and eager.
Much had grieved me in the six months I had spent in the country, in the state of the peasantry. I believe that in the Bocage they are better off than in many parts of France, but even there they seemed to me much oppressed and weighed down. Their huts were wretched-- they had no chimneys, no glass in the windows, no garden, not even anything comfortable for the old to sit in; and when I wanted to give a poor rheumatic old man a warm cushion, I found it was carefully hidden away lest M. l'Intendant should suppose the family too well off.
Those seigniorial rights then seemed to me terrible. The poor people stood in continual fear either of the intendant of the king or of the Marquis, or of the collector of the dues of the Church. At harvest time, a bough was seen sticking in half the sheaves. In every ten, one sheaf is marked for the tithe, tow for the seigneur, two for the king; and the officer of each takes the best, so that only the worst are left for the peasant.
Nay, the only wonder seemed to me that there were any to be had at all, for our intendant thought it his duty to call off the men from their own fields for the days due from them whenever he wanted anything to be done to our land (or his own, or his son's-in-law), without the slightest regard to the damage their crops suffered from neglect.
I was sure these things ought not to be. I thought infinitely more good might be done by helping the peasants to make the most of what they had, and by preventing them from being robbed in my son's name, than by dealing out gallons of soup and piles of bread at the castle gates to relieve the misery we had brought on them, or by dressing the horrible sores that were caused by dirt and bad food. I told the Abbe, and he said it was a noble inspiration in itself, but that he feared that one lady, and she a foreigner, could not change the customs of centuries, and that innovations were dangerous. I also tried to fire with the same zeal for reformation the Abbess of Bellaise, who was a young and spirited woman, open to conviction; but she was cloistered, and could not go to investigate matters as I did, with the Abbe for my escort, and often with my son. He was enchanted to present any little gift, and it was delightful that the peasants should learn to connect all benefits with Monsieur le Marquis, as they already called the little fellow.
I think they loved me the better when they found that I was the grandchild of the Madame Eustace who had been hidden in their cottages. I found two or three old people who still remembered her wanderings when she kept the cows and knitted like a peasant girl among them. I was even shown the ruinous chamber where my aunt Thistlewood was born, and the people were enchanted to hear how much the dear old lady had told me of them, and of their ways, and their kindness to her.
I encouraged the people to make their cottages clean and not to be afraid of comforts, promising that our intendant at least should not interfere with them. I likewise let him know that I would not have men forced to leave their fields when it would ruin their crops, and that it was better that ours should suffer than theirs. He was obsequious in manner and then disobeyed me, till one day I sent three labourers back again to secure their own hay before they touched ours. And when the harvest was gathered in the Abbe and I went round the fields of the poor, and I pointed out the sheaves that might be marked, and they were not the best.
I taught the girls to knit as they watched their cows, and promised to buy some of their stockings, so that they might obtain sabots for themselves with the price. They distrusted me at first, but before long, they began to perceive that I was their friend, and I began to experience a nice kind of happiness.
Alas! even this was too sweet to last, or perhaps, as the good Abbe warned me, I was pleasing myself too much with success, and with going my own way. The first murmur of the storm came thus: I had been out all the afternoon with the Abbe, Armantine's bonne, and the two children, looking at the vineyards, which always interested me much because we have none like them in England. In one, where they were already treading the grapes, the good woman begged that M. le Marquis and Mademoiselle would for once tread the grapes to bring good luck. They were frantic with joy; we took off their little shoes and silk stockings, rolled them up in thick cloths, and let them get into the trough and dance on the grapes with their little white feet. That wine was always called 'the Vintage of le Marquis.' We could hardly get them away, they were so joyous, and each carried a great bunch of grapes as a present to the little boy at home and his mother.
We thought we saw a coachman's head and the top of a carriage passing through the lanes, and when we came home I was surprised to find my sister-in-law in tears, thoroughly shaken and agitated.
Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau had been to see her, she said, and had told her the Count was in Paris, but had not sent for her; and I thought that enough to account for her state; but when the children began to tell their eager story, and hold up their grapes to her, she burst again into tears, and cried: 'Oh, my dear sister, if you would be warned. It is making a scandal, indeed it is! They call you a plebeian.'
I grew hot and angry, and demanded what could be making a scandal, and what business Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau had to meddle with me or my affairs.
'Ah! but she will write to my husband, and he will take me from you, and that would be dreadful. Give it up. Oh, Marguerite, give it up for MY sake!'
What was I to give up? I demanded. Running about the country, it appeared, like a farmer's wife rather than a lady of quality, and stirring up the poor against their lords. It was well known that all the English were seditious. See what they had done to their king; and here was I, beginning the same work. Had not the Count's intendant at Chateau d'Aubepine thrown in his teeth what Madame de Bellaise did and permitted? He was going to write to Monseigneur, ay, and the king's own intendant would hear of it, so I had better take care, and Mademoiselle had come out of pure benevolence to advise Madame la Comtesse to come and take refuse at her husband's own castle before the thunderbolt should fall upon me, and involve her in my ruin.
I laughed. I was sure that I was neither doing nor intending any harm; I thought the whole a mere ebullition of spite on the duenna's part to torment and frighten her emancipated victim, and I treated all as a joke to reassure Cecile, and even laughed at the Abbe for treating the matter more seriously, and saying it was always perilous to go out of a beaten track.
'I thought the beaten track and wide road were the dangerous ones,' I said, with more lightness, perhaps, than suited the subject.
'Ah, Madame,' he returned gravely, 'you have there the truth; but there may be danger in this world in the narrow path.'
The most effectual consolation that I could invent for Cecile was that if her husband thought me bad company for her, he could not but fetch her to her proper home with him, as soon as peace was made. Did I really think so? The little thing grew radiant with the hope.
Days went on, we heard nothing, and I was persuaded that the whole had been, as I told Cecile, a mere figment of Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau's.
I had written to beg my mother, with my brother and sister, to come and join us, and I as already beginning to arrange a suite of rooms for them, my heart bounding as it only can do at the thought of meeting those nearest and dearest of one's own blood.
I remember that I was busy giving orders that the linen should be aired, and overlooking the store of sheets, when Gaspard and Armantine from the window called out: 'Horses, horses, mamma! fine cavaliers!'
I rushed to the window and recognized the Solivet colours. No doubt the baron had come to announce the arrival of my mother and the rest, and I hastened down to meet him at the door, full of delight, with my son holding my hand.
My first exclamation after the greeting was to ask where they were, and how soon they would arrive, and I was terribly disappointed when I found that he had come alone, and that my mother, with Eustace and Annora, were at the Hotel de Nidemerle, at Paris, without any intention of leaving it. He himself had come down on business, as indeed was only natural since he was joined with me in the guardianship of my little Marquis, and he would likewise be in time to enjoy the chase over the estates.
He said no more of his purpose then, so I was not alarmed; and he seemed much struck with the growth and improvement of Gaspard. I had much to hear of the three who were left to me of my own family. M. de Solivet had never seen them before, and could hardly remember his mother, so he could not compare them with what they were before their troubles; but I gathered that my mother was well in health, and little the worse for her troubles, and that my little Nan was as tall as myself, a true White Ribaumont, with an exquisite complexion, who would be all the rage if she were not so extremely English, more English even than I had been when I had arrived.
'And my brother, my Eustace. Oh, why did he not come with you?' I asked.
And M. de Solivet gravely answered that our brother was detained by a suit with the Poligny family respecting the estate of Ribaumont, and, besides, that the rapidity of the journey would not have agreed with his state of health. I only then fully understood the matter, for our letter had been few, and had to be carefully written and made short; and though I knew that, at the battle of Naseby, Eustace had been wounded and made prisoner, he had written to me that his hurt was not severe, and that he had been kindly treated, through the intervention of our cousin Harry Merrycourt, who, to our great regret, was among the rebels, but who had become surety for Eustace and procured his release.
I now heard that my brother had been kept with the other prisoners in a miserable damp barn, letting in the weather on al sides, and with no bedding or other comforts, so that when Harry Merrycourt sought him out, he had taken a violent chill, and had nearly died, not from the wound, but from pleurisy. He had never entirely recovered, though my mother thought him much stronger and better since he had been in France, out of sight of all that was so sad and grievous to a loyal cavalier in England.
'They must come to me,' I cried. 'He will soon be well in this beautiful air; I will feed him with goat's mild and whey, and Tryphena shall nurse him well.'
M. de Solivet made no answer to this, but told me how delighted the Queen of England had to welcome my mother, whom she had at once appointed as one of her ladies of the bedchamber; and then we spoke of King Charles, who was at Hampton Court, trying to make terms with the Parliament, and my brother spoke with regret and alarm of the like spirit of resistance in our own Parliament of Paris, backed by the mob. I remember it was on that evening that I first heard the name Frondeurs, or Slingers, applied to the speechifiers on either side who started forward, made their hit, and retreated, like the little street boys with their slings. I was to hear a great deal more of that name.
It was not till after supper that I heard the cause of M. de Solivet's visit. Cecile, who always retired early, went away sooner than usual to leave us together, so did the Abbe, and then the baron turned to me and said: 'Sister, how soon can you be prepared to come with me to Paris?'
I was astounded, thinking at first that Eustace's illness must be more serious than he had led me to suppose, but he smiled and said notre frere de Volvent, which was the nearest he could get to Walwyn, had nothing do with it; it was by express command of the Queen Regent, and that I might thank my mother and the Queen of England that it was no worse. 'This is better than a letter de catche,' he added, producing a magnificent looking envelope with a huge seal of the royal French arms, that made me laugh rather nervously to brave my dismay, and asked what he called THAT. He responded gravely that it was no laughing matter, and I opened it. It was an official order that Gaspard Philippe Beranger de Bellaise, Marquis de Nidemerle, should be brought to the Louvre to be presented to the King.
'Well,' I said, 'I must go to Paris. Ought I to have brought my boy before? I did not know that he ought to pay his homage till he was older. Was it really such a breach of respect?'
'You are a child yourself, my sister,' he said, much injuring my dignity. 'What have you not been doing here?'
Then it came on me. The intendant of the King had actually written complaints of me to the Government. I was sewing disaffection among the peasants by the favours I granted my own, teaching them for rebellion like that which raged in England, and bringing up my son in the same sentiments. Nay, I was called the Firebrand of the Bocage! If these had been the days of the great Cardinal de Richelieu, my brother assured me, I should probably have been by this time in the Bastille, and my son would have been taken from me for ever!'
However, my half-brother heard of it in time, and my mother had flown to Queen Henrietta, who took her to the Queen-Regent, and together they had made such representations of my youth, folly, and inexperience that the Queen-Mother, who had a fellow-feeling for a young widow and her son, and at last consented to do nothing worse than summon me and my child to Paris, where my mother and her Queen answered for me that I should live quietly, and give no more umbrage to the authorities; and my brother De Solivet had been sent off to fetch me!
I am afraid I was much more angry than grateful, and I said such hot things about tyranny, cruelty, and oppression that Solivet looked about in alarm, lest walls should have ears, and told me he feared he had done wrong in answering for me. He was really a good man, but he could not in the least understand why I should weep hot tears for my poor people whom I was just hoping to benefit. He could not enter into feeling for Jacques Bonhomme so much as for his horse or his dog; and I might have argued for years without making him see anything but childish folly in my wishing for any mode of relief better than doles of soup, dressing wounds, and dowries for maidens.
However, there was no choice; I was helpless, and resistance would have done my people no good, but rather harm, and would only have led to my son being separated from me. Indeed, I cherished a hope that when the good Queen Anne heard the facts she might understand better than my half-brother did, and that I might become an example and public benefactor. My brother must have smiled at me in secret, but he did not contradict me.
My poor mother and the rest would not have been flattered by my reluctance to come to Paris; but in truth the thought of them was my drop of comfort, and if Eustace could not come to me I must have gone to him. And Cecile--what was to become of Cecile?
To come with me of course. Here at least Solivet agreed with me, for he had as great a horror of Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau as I had, and knew, moreover, that she wrote spiteful letters to the Count d'Aubepine about his poor little wife, which happily were treated with the young gentleman's usual insouciance. Solivet was of my opinion that the old demoiselle had instigated this attack. He thought so all the more when he heard that she was actually condescending to wed the intendant of Chateau d'Aubepine. But he said he had no doubt that my proceedings would have been stopped sooner or later, and that it was well that it should be done before I committed myself unpardonably.
Madame d'Aubepine had been placed in my charge by her husband, so that I was justified in taking her with me. Her husband had spent the last winter at Paris, but was now with the army in the Low Countries, and the compliments Solivet paid me on my dear friend's improvement in appearance and manner inspired us with strong hopes that she might not attract her husband; for though still small, pale, and timid, she was very unlike the frightened sickly child he had left.
I believe she was the one truly happy person when we left the Chateau de Nid de Merle. She was all radiant with hope and joy, and my brother could not but confess she was almost beautiful, and a creature whom any man with a heart must love.
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