This ring I gave him when he parted from me To bind him to remember my good will; The more shame for him that he sends it to me.--Shakespeare.
Marguerite had come, as she frequently did, to bring some provisions for the old man, and it was not without astonishment that she perceived in the outer room, where she usually found Achard, a young and handsome man, who looked at her with gladdened eyes, and with a kindly smile. She made a sign to the servant to put down the basket in a corner of the room; he obeyed, and then went out to wait for his mistress in the park. When he had withdrawn, she advanced towards Paul, saying,—
"I beg your pardon, sir, but I expected to find my old friend, Achard, here, and I came, to bring him something from my mother"—
Paul pointed to the inner room, to let her know that the person she was seeking was within, for he could not reply to her; he felt that the tone of his voice would betray the emotions he experienced. The young girl thanked him, with a bow, and went into the room to find Achard.
Paul followed her with his eyes—his hand pressed upon his heart. That virgin soul into which love had never penetrated, now expanded with fraternal tenderness. Isolated as he had always been, having no friends but the rude children of the ocean, all that was soft or tender in his heart, he had turned towards God, and although in the eyes of rigid Christians, his religion might not have appeared as strictly orthodox, it is no less true, that the poetry which overflowed in every word he uttered was nothing more than one vast and eternal prayer. It was not, therefore, astonishing, that this first feeling which penetrated his heart, although purely fraternal, was as extravagant and transporting as the emotions of love.
"Oh!" murmured he, "poor isolated being that I am! How shall I be able to restrain my feelings when she returns, and prevent myself from clasping her to my heart and saying to her: Marguerite! my sister, no woman has yet felt love for me; love me then with sisterly affection. Oh! mother! mother! by depriving me of your caresses, you have also deprived me of those of this dear angel. May God restore to you in eternity that happiness which you have driven from yourself and others."
"Farewell!" said Marguerite to the old man, opening the door, "farewell! I wished this evening to come myself, for I know not when I may see you again."
And she went toward the outer door, pensive, and with her eyes cast down, without seeing Paul, without remembering that a stranger was in that room. Paul remained gazing at her with outstretched arms as if to prevent her leaving the house, with palpitating heart and moistened eyes. At length, when he saw her placing her hand upon the door-latch, he cried aloud—
She turned round amazed, but not being able to comprehend this strange familiarity, in one who was totally unknown to her, she half-opened the door.
"Marguerite!" reiterated Paul, advancing a step towards his sister, "Marguerite, do you not hear me call you?"
"It is true that my name is Marguerite, sir," she replied, with dignity; "but I could not imagine that word was addressed to me by a person whom I have the honor of knowing."
"But I know you!" exclaimed Paul, going nearer to her, and then closing the door he brought her back into the room. "I know that you are unhappy, that you have not one friendly heart into which you can pour your sorrows, not one arm from which you can ask support."
"You forget the one which is on high," replied Marguerite, raising her eyes and hand toward heaven.
"No, no, Marguerite, I do not forget, for it is He who sends me to offer you that which you most need; to tell you when all lips and all hearts are closed toward you, 'I am your friend, devotedly, eternally.'"
"Oh! sir!" replied Marguerite, "these are sacred and solemn words which you have uttered; words, unfortunately, to which it would be difficult for me to give credence without proofs."
"And should I give you one?" said Paul.
"Impossible!" murmured Marguerite.
"Irrefragable!" continued Paul.
"Oh! then!" exclaimed Marguerite, with an indescribable accent, in which doubt began to give place to hope—
"Well! and then"—
"Oh! then—but no, no!"
"Do you know this ring?" said Paul, showing her the one with the key that opened the bracelet.
"Gracious heaven!" exclaimed Marguerite, "have mercy upon me! he is dead!"
"Then he no longer loves me."
"He loves you!"
"If he be living—if he still love me—oh! I shall go mad—what was it I was saying? If he be living—if he still love me, how comes it that this ring is in your possession?"
"He confided it to me as a token of recognition."
"And have I confided this bracelet to any one?" cried Marguerite, pushing back the sleeve of her gown—"Look!"
"Yes, but you, Marguerite, you are not proscribed—dishonored, in the eyes of the whole world—thrown amongst a condemned race!"
"Of what importance is that. Is he not innocent?"
"And then, he thought," continued Paul, wishing to discover the extent of the devotedness and love of his sister, "he thought that delicacy required, banished as he is for ever from society, that he should offer you, if not restore to you, the liberty of disposing of your hand."
"When a woman has done for a man that which I have done for him," replied Marguerite, "her only excuse is to love him eternally, and it is that I mean to do."
"Oh! you are an angel!" exclaimed Paul.
"Tell me!" rejoined Marguerite, seizing the young man's hands, and looking at him with a supplicating air—
"Have you seen him, then?"
"I am his friend, his brother."
"Speak to me of him, then?" she exclaimed, giving herself up entirely to the recollection of her lover, and forgetting that it was the first time she had seen the person to whom she was addressing questions of so delicate a nature. "What is he doing? what hope has he? Poor, unhappy man!"
"He loves you—and he hopes again to see you."
"Then, then," stammered Marguerite, and drawing back some paces,—"he has told you——?"
"Oh!" she cried, looking down and concealing her face, over which a sudden tinge of red had cast itself, replacing for a moment its habitual paleness.
Paul approached her and clasping her to his breast, exclaiming—
"You are a miracle of devotedness!"
"You do not then despise me, sir?" said Marguerite, Venturing to raise her eyes.
"Marguerite!" cried Paul, "had I a sister I would pray to heaven that she might resemble you."
"Oh! were it so you would have a most unhappy sister," she replied, leaning upon his arm and bursting into tears.
"Perhaps," said Paul, smiling.
"You know not, then——?"
"That Monsieur de Lectoure is to arrive to-morrow morning."
"I have been informed of that."
"And that to-morrow night the marriage contract is to be signed."
"I know that, too."
"Well! then! what can I hope for in such extremity as this? To whom can I apply to prevent this hated union? Who can I interest to aid me? My brother? God knows that I forgive him, but he cannot comprehend my feelings. My mother? Oh! sir, you do not know my mother. She is a woman whose reputation is unsullied, of the most austere virtue, and her will inflexible, for never having failed in her duty, she does not believe that others can forget it, and when she has once said, 'It is my will,' all that remains to do is to bow down one's head, to weep, and to obey. My father? Yes, I well know that my father must leave the room from which he has never stirred for twenty years, to sign this contract. My father! for any one less unhappy and less culpable than I might prove a resource: but you know not that he is insane—that he has lost his reason, and with it every feeling of paternal affection. And besides, it is ten years since I last saw him. For the last ten years I have not pressed his trembling hands, nor kissed his snow white hairs. He knows not that he has still a daughter! he knows not even whether he has a heart, and will not be able even to recognize me. And were he but to know me, and took compassion on me, my mother would place a pen in his hand and would say, 'Sign that, it is my will!' and he would sign it—the poor feeble old man! and his daughter would be condemned."
"Yes, yes. I know all this as well as you do, my poor child; but be pacified, that contract never will be signed."
"And who can prevent it?"
"Do not despair. To-morrow I shall be present at the family council."
"Who will present you there?"
"I have the means."
"My brother is violent; and passionate. Oh! good heaven, beware, while striving to save me that you do not sink me still deeper in misery?"
"Your brother's person is in my eyes as sacred as your own, Marguerite. Fear nothing, and rely confidently upon me."
"Oh! I believe you, sir, and I implicitly confide in you," said Marguerite, as if overwhelmed by the contending feelings of confidence and mistrust which she had till then labored under. "For what advantage could you derive from endeavoring to deceive me? What interest could you have to betray me?"
"None, undoubtedly; but let us talk of other matters. What line of conduct do you intend to pursue with regard to the Baron de Lectoure?"
"I will tell him all!"
"Oh!" cried Paul, bowing profoundly, "allow me to adore you."
"Sir!" murmured Marguerite, "sir!"
"As a sister! as a sister!"
"Yes, you are indeed kind and good," cried Marguerite, "and I believe it is God who sent you to my aid."
"Believe it," replied Paul. "Then—to-morrow evening."
"Do not be astonished, nor alarmed at anything that may occur, only contrive to let me know by letter, by a word, a sign, the result of your interview with Lectoure!"
"I will endeavor to do so."
"It is now late, and your servant may be surprised at the length of this interview. Return to the castle, and say not a word of me to any one. Farewell!"
"Farewell," reiterated Marguerite; "you to whom I know not what name to give."
"Call me your brother."
"Farewell, then, brother."
"Oh, my sister! my sister!" cried Paul, clasping her convulsively in his arms, "your lips are the first from which I have heard so sweet a word. God will reward you for it."
The young girl drew back amazed; and then returning to Paul, she held out her hand to him. Paul again pressed it, and Marguerite left the cottage.
The young man then went to the door of the inner room, and opened it.
"And now, good old man," said he, "conduct me to my father's grave."