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Chapter 11

THE COURTIER.


Hamlet.—Dost thou know this water-fly?
Horatio.—No, my good lord.
Hamlet.—Thy state is the more gracious; for 'tis a vice to know him.
--SHAKESPEARE.


Here on my knees by heaven's blest nower I swear,
If you persist, I ne'er henceforth will see you;
But rather wander through the world a beggar,
And live on sordid scraps at poor men's doors.
For, though to fortune lost, I'll still inherit
My mother's virtues and my father's honor.—Otway.

The day following that on which Paul had been made acquainted with the secret of his birth, the inhabitants of the castle of Auray awoke more than ever absorbed in the fears and hopes which their several interests had created, for that day must necessarily prove a decisive one to the whole of them. The marchioness, whom our readers have ere this discovered, was neither perverse or wicked, but a haughty and inflexible woman, saw in it the termination of those heart-rending apprehensions, which for so many years, had been her daily companions; for it was above all, in the eyes of her children, that she wished to preserve that unsullied reputation, the usurpation of which had been purchased at such cost. To her, Lectoure was not only a fitting son-in-law, being the bearer of a name as noble as her own, but more than this, a man, or rather a good genius, who at the same moment would bear away not only her daughter, whom he would take with him as his wife, but her son also, to whom the minister, thanks to this alliance, had promised to give a regiment. Both her children gone, her first-born might come, and the secret revealed to him, would find no echo. Moreover, there were a thousand methods by which to close his lips. The fortune of the marchioness was immense, and gold was one of those resources, which, in such a case, she deemed infallible. The more terrible her fears, the more ardently did she desire this union; so that she not only encouraged the anxiety of Lectoure, but she also excited that of Emanuel. As to the latter, tired of living unknown at Paris, or immured in Brittany, lost in the crowd of brilliant young men who formed the household of the King, or shut up in the antique castle of his ancestors, having their portraits as his sole companions, he knocked with impatient eagerness at the golden door which his intended brother-in-law was to open for him, at Versailles. The grief and tears of his sister had, certainly, for a time afflicted him; for he was ambitious, more from a dread of the ennui, which would consume him if compelled to live on his estate, and from the desire of parading at the head of his regiment, captivating the hearts of all the ladies by the richness and good taste of his uniform, than from either pride or hardness of heart. Being himself incapable of forming any serious attachment, and despite the fatal consequences of his sister's love, he considered that love, merely as a childish fancy, which the tumult and pleasure of the world would soon efface from her memory, and he really believed that before a year had elapsed, she would be the first to thank him for having thus done violence to her feelings.

As to Marguerite, poor victim, so irrevocably condemned to be immolated to the fear of the one, and to the ambition of the other, the scene of the preceding day had made a profound impression on her mind. She could not at all account to herself for the extraordinary feelings which the young man who had transmitted to her the words of Lusignan, had awakened in her heart; who had tranquillized her as to the fate of the unhappy exile, and had concluded by pressing her to his heart, and calling her his sister. A vague and instinctive hope whispered to her heart, that this man, as he had told her, had received from heaven the mission to protect her. But as she was ignorant of the tie which bound him to her, of the secret which made him master of his mother's will, of the influence he might exercise over her future life, she did not dare allow herself to dream of happiness, habituated as she had been for six months, to consider death as the only term to her misfortunes.

The marquis, alone, amid the various emotions which agitated all around him, had remained coldly and impassibly indifferent; for to him the world had ceased to move since the dreadful day on which reason had abandoned him; continually absorbed by one fixed idea, that of his mortal combat, without seconds. The only words he ever uttered, were those pronounced by the Count de Morlaix, when he forgave him his death. He was an old man, weak as an infant, and whom his wife could overawe by a gesture, and who received from her cold and continuous will, every impulsion, which, for twenty years, the vegetating instinct had received, and which, on him, had usurped the place of reason and free will. On this day, however, a great change had taken place in his monotonous mode of life. A valet de chambre had entered his apartment, and had succeeded to the marchioness in the cares of his toilette; he had dressed him in his uniform of steward of the household, had decorated his breast with the several orders that had been conferred upon him; and then the marchioness, placing a pen in his hand, had ordered him to try to sign his name, and he had obeyed, passively and negligently, without imagining that he was studying the part of an executioner.

About three in the afternoon, a postchaise, the sound of whose wheels had very differently impressed the hearts of the three persons who were expecting it, entered the court-yard of the castle. Emanuel had eagerly run down to the vestibule to receive his future brother-in-law, for it was he who had arrived. Lectoure sprang lightly from his carriage. He had halted for some time at the last post-house, to attire himself in a presentable costume, so that he arrived in an elegant court dress of the latest fashion. Emanuel smiled at this evidence of his anxiety, for it was clearly to be perceived, that Lectoure was determined not to lose the advantage of a first favorable impression, by presenting himself in a dusty travelling dress. His intercourse with the fair sex had taught him, that they almost invariably judge from the first glance, and the effect which it produces upon their minds or hearts, let it be favorable or unfavorable, is with difficulty removed. Moreover, it is but rendering justice to the baron to acknowledge that his person was graceful and elegant, and might have been dangerous to any woman whose heart was not already occupied by another.

"Permit me, my dear baron," said Emanuel, advancing toward him, "in the momentary absence of the ladies, to do the honors of the mansion of my ancestors. See," continued he, when they had reached the top of the stone steps leading into the hall, and pointing to the turrets and the bastions, "these date from the time of Philip Augustus, as to architecture, and from Henry IV., in point of ornament."

"Upon my honor," replied the baron, in the affected tone which the young men of that day had adopted, "it is a most charming fortress, and throws around it, to a distance of at least three leagues, a baronial odour, which would perfume even an army contractor. If ever," continued he, as they passed through the hall and entered a gallery ornamented on each side with long lines of family portraits, "I should take a fancy to enter into a rebellion against his most Christian Majesty, I shall entreat you to lend me this jewel of a place; and," added he, casting his eyes on the long rows of ancestors which offered themselves to his view, "the garrison with it."

"Thirty-three quarters—I will not say in flesh and blood," replied Emanuel, "for they are long since turned to dust—but in painting, as you see. They begin with a certain Chevalier Hugues d'Auray, who accompanied King Louis VII. to the crusades; that one, it is pretended, is my aunt Deborah, whom you see decked out as Judith; and all this eventually ends in the male line, in the last member of this illustrious family, your very humble and very obedient servant, Emanuel d'Auray."

"It is perfectly respectable, and nothing can be more authentic."

"Yes; but as I do not feel that I have, as yet, become sufficiently a patriarch," rejoined Emanuel, passing before the baron to show him the way to the apartment which had been prepared for him, "to spend my days in such formidable society, I hope, baron, that you have thought of the means by which I can withdraw from it?"

"Undoubtedly, my dear count," said Lectoure, following him. "I wished even to have been myself the bearer of your commission, as my wedding gift to you. I knew of a vacancy in the queen's dragoon's, and called yesterday on M. de Maurepas to solicit it for you, when I heard that it had been granted, at the request of I know not what mysterious admiral, a sort of corsair, pirate, or fantastic being, whom the queen has made the fashion by giving him her hand to kiss, and whom the king has taken a great affection to because he beat the English, I know not where—so that his majesty has conferred upon him the order of military merit, and presented him a sword with a gold hilt, just as he would have done to one of the nobility. In short, the game is lost on that side, but do not be alarmed, we will turn round to another."

"Very well," replied Emanuel, "I care not what regiment it may be in; what I desire is, that it should be a rank suitable to my name, and a position which would be becoming to our wealth."

"Precisely—you shall have them."

"But how," said Emanuel, wishing to change the subject of conversation, "how did you manage to get rid of the thousand engagements you must have had on your hands."

"Why," said the baron, with that perfectly free and easy air, which belonged only to that distinguished class, and stretching himself upon a couch, for they had at length reached the apartment destined for him, "why, by frankly stating the fact to them. I announced at the queen's card table, I was going to be married."

"Oh! good heaven! Why, this was perfect heroism! Above all, if you acknowledged you were about to seek a wife in the depths of Lower Brittany."

"I did acknowledge it."

"And then," said Emanuel, smiling, "compassion stifled every angry feeling."

"Gad! you will readily comprehend, my dear count," said Lectoure, putting one knee over the other and, balancing his leg with a motion as regular as that of a pendulum, "our women of the court believe that the sun rises at Paris, and sets at Versailles—all the rest of France, is, in their idea, a Lapland, Greenland, Nova Zembla! So that they expect, as you have hinted, my dear count, to see me bring back with me from my voyage to the pole some large hands, and formidable feet! Fortunately, they are mistaken," he added, with an accent half timorous, half interrogatory; "is it not so, Emanuel? for you told me that your sister"——

"You will see her," replied Emanuel.

"It will be a dreadful disappointment to that poor Madame de Chaulne—it cannot be helped—and she must console herself. What is it?"

This question was induced by the entrance of Emanuel's valet-de-chambre; who had half opened the door, and remained upon the threshold, waiting, as was then the custom of all servants in great houses, till his master should address him.

"What is it? repeated Emanuel.

"Mademoiselle Marguerite d' Auray requests that Monsieur, the Baron de Lectoure, will honor her with a private interview."

"Me!" said Lectoure, rising from the sofa, "certainly, with the greatest pleasure."

"But no! it is a mistake!" exclaimed Emanuel; "you must be mistaken, Celestin."

"I have the honor to assure your lordship," replied the valet de chambre, "that I have correctly and faithfully executed the order which was given to me."

"Impossible!" said Emanuel, uneasy to the highest degree, at the step his sister had ventured to take: "Baron, if you will be advised by me, you will send the little simpleton about her business."

"By no means! by no means," replied Lectoure. "What does this bluebeard of a brother mean? Celestin! Did you not call this lad, Celestin?"

Emanuel impatiently bowed his head in the affirmative. "Well then, Celestin, tell my lovely betrothed that I throw myself at her knees, at her feet, and that I await her orders either to go to her or to receive her here;—and there, take this for the charges of your embassy."

He threw him his purse.

"And you, count," rejoined Lectoure, "I trust that you have confidence enough in me, to permit this tête-à-tête?"

"But it is so perfectly absurd!"

"Not at all," replied Lectoure; "on the contrary, it is perfectly befitting. I am not a crowned head, that I should marry a woman upon her portrait, and by proxy. I wish to see her in person. Come, Emanuel," he continued, pushing his friend toward a side door, that he might not meet his sister—"Come, now, tell me frankly—in confidence, between ourselves—is there any—deformity?"

"Why, no, by heaven!" replied the young count, "no—on the contrary, she is as lovely as an angel."

"Well, then!" said the baron, "what does all this opposition mean? Come, now, begone, or must I call my guards?"

"No; but on my word, I am afraid that this little simpleton, who has not the slightest notion of the world, is coming to destroy all that has been arranged between us."

"Oh! if that is all you fear," replied Lectoure, opening the door, "you may be perfectly at ease. I like the brother too well not to look over some caprice—some extraordinary fantasies in the sister—and I pledge you my word as a gentleman, unless the devil should play us some strange trick, (whom, I trust, is at this moment fully occupied in some other corner of the world!) that Mademoiselle Marguerite d'Auray, shall be Madame the Baroness de Lectoure, and that in a month you shall have your regiment."

This promise appeared in some degree to pacify Emanuel, who allowed himself to be pushed out of the door without making further difficulty. Lectoure immediately ran to a looking-glass to repair the slight traces of disorder, which the jolting over the three last leagues had occasioned in his dress. He had scarcely given to his, hair and garments the most becoming turn and folds, when the door again opened, and Celestin announced—

"Mademoiselle Marguerite d'Auray."

The baron turned round, and perceived his betrothed standing pale and trembling on the threshold of the door. Although the promises of Emanuel had inspired him with some degree of hope, a certain residue of doubt had still remained on his mind, if not as to the beauty, at all events, with regard to the deportment of the lady who was about to become his wife. His surprise was therefore unbounded, when he saw that delicate and graceful creature standing before him, and whom the most fastidious critic of female elegance could only have reproached with being in a slight degree too pallid. Marriages, such as the one about to be contracted by Lectoure, were by no means rare in an age in which questions as to rank and suitableness of fortune in general, decided alliances between noble houses; but that which was scarcely found once in a thousand times, was, that a man in the baron's position should meet, immured in a distant province, a lady possessed of an immense fortune, and whom, at the first glance, he could discern, was worthy, by her demeanor, her elegance, and her beauty, to shine in the most brilliant circles of the court. He, therefore, advanced toward her, no longer with the feeling of superiority as a courtier, addressing a country girl, but with all the respectful ease which distinguished good society at that time.

"Pardon me, mademoiselle," said he, offering her his hand to conduct her to an arm chair, but which she did not accept; "it was to me to solicit the favor you have bestowed upon me; and believe me, it was the apprehension of being considered indiscreet, which alone has occasioned the apparent neglect of allowing myself to be forestalled."

"I truly appreciate this delicacy, sir," replied Marguerite, in a trembling voice, and retreating one step, she remained standing. "It strengthens me still more in the confidence which, without having seen you, without knowing you, I had placed in your honor and good faith."

"Whatever aim this confidence may have had, I am honored by it, mademoiselle, and I will endeavor to render myself worthy of it. But, good heaven, what can so affect you?"

"Nothing, sir, nothing," replied Marguerite, endeavoring to overcome her emotion; "but it is—it is—that I have to tell you that—but—really—I am not sufficiently mistress of myself to—"

She staggered, and appeared as if about to fall; the baron sprang toward her to offer his support, but he had scarcely touched her when a flush of crimson suffused the cheeks of the young girl, and with a feeling, which might be attributed as well to modesty as to repugnance, she disengaged herself from his arms. Lectoure had taken her hand, and conducted her to a chair, against which she leaned, but would not seat herself in it.

"Good God!" exclaimed the baron, still retaining her hand, "it must then be something very difficult to utter, that has brought you hither! Or, without my at all suspecting it, has my being affianced to you already conferred upon me the imposing air of a husband?" Marguerite made another effort to withdraw her hand from the baron, and which induced the latter to observe it.

"How!" said he, "not satisfied with having the most adorable of faces, the elegant figure of a fairy, but you must have such lovely hands!—hands perfectly royal in their shape—why, 'tis enough to make me expire at once."

"I trust M. le Baron," rejoined Marguerite, and making a last effort, she withdrew her hand from his grasp, "that the words with which you are now addressing me, are merely words of gallantry."

"No, by my soul! they are the sincere truth."

"Well then, I hope, should it be, which I much doubt, that you really think that which you have been pleased to say—I trust, I say, that such motives will not lead you to attach a higher value to the union which has been projected?"

"They will, indeed, and that I swear to you."

"And yet," continued Marguerite, gasping for breath, so much was her heart oppressed, "and yet, sir, you consider marriage as a solemn matter?"

"That is as it may happen," smilingly replied Lectoure; "for example, if I were about to marry an old dowager."

"In short," rejoined Marguerite, in a more determined tone, "I beg your pardon, sir, if I have been mistaken; I thought, perhaps, that with regard to the alliance proposed between us, you had formed some idea of reciprocity of feeling."

"Never!" cried Lectoure, interrupting her, for he appeared as eager to avoid the frank explanation, which Marguerite desired, as she seemed to provoke it. "Never! and above all, since I have seen you, I could not hope to be worthy of your love. And yet my name, my position in society, notwithstanding I should fail to influence your heart, may yet give me a title to your hand."

"But how, sir," said Marguerite, timidly, "how can you separate the one from the other?"

"As do three-fourths of the people who get married, mademoiselle," replied Lectoure, with a carelessness which would have at once deterred the confidence of a woman less candid than Marguerite. "A man marries in order to have a wife, the wife to have a husband; it is a social compact, an arrangement of convenience. What can love have to do in a matter of this nature?"

"Your pardon, sir; perhaps I have not clearly expressed my meaning," continued Marguerite, making an effort to control her feelings, and to conceal from the man upon whom her future fate depended, the impression his words had produced upon her mind. "But you must attribute my hesitation, sir, to the timidity of a young girl, compelled by imperious circumstances to speak on such a subject."

"Not at all, mademoiselle," replied Lectoure, bowing and giving to his voice a tone which nearly approached raillery; "on the contrary, you speak like Clarissa Harlowe, and all you say is as clear as daylight. God has endowed me with a mind sufficiently quick-sighted perfectly to comprehend things which are but hinted at."

"How, sir!" cried Marguerite, "you comprehend what I had the intention of saying, and you allow me to continue? How would it be if on looking deeply into my heart and interrogating all its feelings, I found it impossible to love—to love the person who had been presented to me as my future husband?"

"Why," replied Lectoure, in the same sarcastic tone in which he had before spoken, "in my opinion the best course to pursue would be not to tell him of it."

"And why not, sir?"

"Because—but—but—because it would really be too simple."

"And if that avowal were made, not from simplicity but from delicacy? If I added, and may the shame of such an avowal fall back on those who compel me to make it—if I added sir, that I have loved, that I still love?"

"Oh! some little romance, is it not so?" said Lectoure, carelessly, crossing his leg and playing with the frill of his shirt; "upon my honor, the race of little cousins is an accursed race. But fortunately we know what these ephemeral attachments are; and there is not a school-girl, who, after the holidays, does not return to her convent but with a passion in her little heart."

"Unfortunately for me," replied Marguerite, with, a voice as sorrowful and grave as that of the baron was sarcastic and light, "unfortunately, I am no longer a school-girl, sir; and although still young, I have long ago passed the age of childish games and infantine attachments. When I speak to the man who does me the honor to solicit my hand and to offer me his name, of my love for another, he ought to understand that I am speaking of a serious, profound, and eternal love; of one of those passions, in fine, which leave their traces in the heart, and imprint them there for ever."

"The devil!" exclaimed Lectoure, as if beginning to attach some importance to Marguerite's confession; "why, this is perfectly pastoral. But let us see! is it a young man whom one can receive at one's house?"

"Oh! sir," cried Marguerite, catching at the hope which these words seemed to inspire: "oh! believe me, he is the most estimable being, the most devoted soul——"

"Why, I am not asking you to tell me this—I was not speaking of the qualities of his heart—he has all these, of course, that's perfectly understood. I ask you whether he is noble? if he is of good race? in short, whether a woman of quality could acknowledge him, and that without degrading her husband?"

"His father, whom he lost when very young, and who was my father's friend from infancy, was a counsellor at the Court of Rennes."

"Nobility of the bar!" exclaimed Lectoure, dropping his nether lip with a contemptuous shrug; "I would rather it were otherwise—is he a knight of Malta, at least?"

"He was educated for a military life."

"Oh! then, we must get a regiment for him, to give him rank and standing in society. Well, that's all arranged, and it is well. Now, listen to me: he will absent himself for six months, merely for decency's sake, will obtain leave of absence, no difficult matter now, as we are not at war—he will get himself presented to you for form's sake, by some mutual friend, and then all will go on rightly."

"I do not understand you, sir," replied Marguerite, looking at the baron with an expression of profound astonishment.

"What I have said to you is, notwithstanding, perfectly pellucid," rejoined the latter, with some show of impatience; "you have engagements on your side—I have on mine—but that is no reason for preventing an union which is perfectly suitable in every respect; and once accomplished, why, I think, we are bound to render it as bearable as we can. Do you comprehend me now?"

"Oh! pardon me, sir, pardon me," cried Marguerite, starting back, as though these words had outraged her; "I have been very imprudent, very culpable perhaps; but whatever I may have been, I did not dream I could have merited so gross an insult. Oh! sir, the blush of shame is now scorching my cheek, but more for you than for myself. Yes, I understand you—an apparent love and a concealed one; the face of vice and the mask of virtue; and it is to me—to me, the daughter of the Marquis d'Auray, that so shameful, so humiliating, so infamous a bargain is proposed. Oh!" continued she, falling into an arm-chair, and hiding her face with both her hands, "I must then be a most unfortunate, most contemptible lost creature! Oh! my God! my God!"

"Emanuel! Emanuel!" cried the baron, opening the door, at which he rightly suspected Marguerite's brother had remained; "come in, my dear friend; your sister is attacked with spasms; these things ought to be attended to, or they may become chronic; Madame do Moulan died of them. Here, take my scent bottle, and let her smell at it. As to myself, I am going down into the park. If you have nothing else to do, you can rejoin me there, and bring me, if you please, news of your sister."

Saying these words, the Baron de Lectoure left the room with miraculous calmness, leaving Marguerite and Emanuel together.



Alexandre Dumas pere

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