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Chapter 13

THE CONTRACT.


Listen to me and heed me!
If this contract
Thou holdst me to, abide thou the result!
Answer to heaven for what I suffer! act!
Prepare thyself for such calamity
To fall on me, and those whose evil
Have linked them with me, as no past mishap,
However rare and marvellously Sad,
Can parallel.--Knowles—The Hunchback.

At the moment that Paul went into the study, the marchioness appeared at the door of the drawing-room, followed by the notary, and the several persons who had been invited to be present at the signing of the contract. Notwithstanding the nature of the meeting, the marchioness had not considered it proper to lay aside, even for one evening, her mourning garments, and dressed in complete black, as she had been always during twenty years, she came into the room a few moments before the marquis. None of the persons present, not even his son, had seen the marquis for many years. Such attention was in those days paid to ancient forms, that the marchioness would not allow the marriage contract of her daughter to be signed, without the head of the family, although deprived of reason, being present; at the ceremony. However little accustomed Lectoure was to feel intimidated, the marchioness produced upon him the effect which she did on every one that approached her, and on seeing her enter the room with so grave and dignified an aspect, he bowed to her with a feeling of profound respect.

"I am grateful to you, gentlemen," said the marchioness, bowing to the persons who accompanied her, "for the honor you have been pleased to confer upon me, by being present at the betrothal of Mademoiselle Marguerite d'Auray, with the Baron de Lectoure. I, in consequence, was desirous that the marquis, although suffering from illness, should also be present at this meeting, to thank you at least by his presence, if he cannot do so verbally. You are all aware of his unfortunate malady, and you will, therefore, not be astonished, should some disjointed words—"

"Yes, madam," said Lectoure, interrupting her, "we know the misfortune which has befallen him, and we admire the devoted wife, who for twenty years has borne half the weight of this sad visitation."

"You see, madam," said Emanuel, addressing in his turn, and kissing the hand of his mother, "all the world bows down in admiration of your conjugal piety."

"Where is Marguerite?" murmured the marchioness, in a hair whisper.

"She was here not a moment ago," said Emanuel. "Let her know that we are all assembled," rejoined the marchioness, in the same tone.

A servant then announced "the Marquis d'Auray." All present drew to one side, so as to leave free passage from the door, and all eyes were directed to the spot at which this new personage was to appear. It was not long before their curiosity was satisfied; the marquis came in almost immediately, supported by two servants.

He was an old man, whose countenance, notwithstanding that the traces of suffering had deeply furrowed it, still retained that noble and dignified appearance which had rendered him one of the most distinguished men of the court of Louis XV. His large, hollow, and feverish eyes, glanced around the assembly with a strange expression of astonishment. He was dressed in his costume of Steward of the Household, wore the order of the Holy Ghost suspended from his neck, and that of St. Louis, at his button hole. He advanced slowly, and without uttering a word. The two servants led him forward amid the most profound silence, to an arm-chair, in which he seated himself, and the servants left the room. The marchioness then placed herself at his right hand. The notary opened the portfolio, drew from it the marriage contract and read it aloud. The marquis and the marchioness made over the sum of five hundred thousand francs to Lectoure, and gave a like sum to Marguerite, as her dowry.

During the whole of the time occupied by the reading of the contract, the marchioness, notwithstanding her great self command, had betrayed some symptoms of uneasiness. But just at the moment when the notary had placed the contract open on the table, Emanuel returned and approached his mother.

"And Marguerite?" said the marchioness.

"She will be here instantly."

"Madam," murmured Marguerite, half opening the door, and clasping her hands.

The marchioness pretended not to hear her, and pointed with her finger at the pen.

"Baron, it is you who are first to sign."

Lectoure immediately approached the table and signed the contract.

"Madam!" cried Marguerite, in a tone of supplication, and advancing one step toward her mother.

"Pass the pen to your betrothed, Baron," said the marchioness.

The Baron walked round the table, and drew near to Marguerite.

"Madam!" again cried the latter, with an accent so melancholy, that it struck to the heart of every person present, and even the marquis himself raised his head.

"Sign!" said the marchioness, pointing to the marriage contract.

"Oh! my father! my father!" exclaimed Marguerite throwing herself at the feet of the marquis.

"What does this mean?" said the marchioness, leaning upon the arm of the marquis' chair, and bending over him, "are you mad, mademoiselle?"

"My father! oh! my father!" again cried Marguerite, throwing her arms around him, "my father, have pity, save your daughter!"

"Marguerite!" murmured the marchioness, in a threatening accent.

"Madam!" replied Marguerite, "I cannot address myself to you—permit me, then, to implore my father's pity; unless," she added, pointing to the notary with a firm and determined gesture, "you would prefer my invoking the protection of the law."

"Come, come," said the marchioness, rising, and in a tone of bitter irony, "this is a family scene, and which, although highly interesting to near relations, must be sufficiently tedious to strangers. Gentlemen, you will find refreshments in the adjoining rooms. My son, conduct these gentlemen, and do the honors. Baron, I must beg your pardon for a short time." Emanuel and Lectoure bowed in silence and withdrew, followed by all the company. The marchioness remained motionless until the last of them had withdrawn, and then she closed all the doors leading into the room, when, returning to the marquis, whom Marguerite still held clasped in her arms.

"And now," said she, "that there is no one present excepting those who have the right to lay their commands upon you, sign that paper, mademoiselle, or leave the room."

"For pity's sake, madam, for pity's sake, do not compel me to commit so infamous an act!"

"Have you not heard me?" said the marchioness, giving to her voice an imperative tone, which she thought impossible to be resisted, "or must I repeat my words? 'Sign, or leave the room.'"

"Oh! my father!" cried Marguerite, "mercy! mercy! No, it shall not be said, that after having been banished from my father's presence for ten years, I was torn from his arms the first time I again beheld him—and that, before he had recognized me, before he has embraced me. Oh! father! father!—it is I, it is your daughter!"

"What is that voice that is imploring me?" murmured the marquis. "Who is this child who calls me father?"

"That voice," said the marchioness, seizing the arm of her daughter, "is a voice that is raised against the rights of nature. That child is a rebellious daughter."

"My father!" cried Marguerite imploringly, "look at me. Oh! my father, save me I defend me! I am Marguerite."

"Marguerite? Marguerite?" stammered the marquis, "I had formerly a child of that name."

"It is I! it is I!" rejoined Marguerite: "I am your child—I am your daughter."

"There are no children but those who obey. Obey! and you will then have the right to call yourself our daughter," rejoined the marchioness.

"To you, my father, yes,—to you I am ready to obey. But you do not command this sacrifice! you do not wish that I should be unhappy—unhappy even to despair—unhappy even to death."

"Come! come!" said the marquis holding her in his turn, and pressing her to his heart. "Oh! this is a delicious and unknown feeling to me. And now—wait! wait!" He pressed his hand to his forehead. "It seems to me that I recollect."

"Sir!" cried the marchioness, "tell her that she ought to obey; that the malediction of God awaits rebellious children. Tell her that, rather than to encourage her in her impiety!"

The marquis slowly raised his head, and fixed his piercing eyes upon his wife, and then slowly pronounced the following words: "Take care! madam, take care. Have I not told you that I begin to remember!" and then again bending down his head to that of Marguerite, so that his grey hairs mingled with the dark tresses, of his daughter—"Speak—speak!" said he, "what is it that disturbs you, my child—tell me all."

"Oh! I am most unhappy!"

"Everybody, then, is unhappy here," exclaimed the marquis, "whether their hair be grey or black—an old man or a child.. Oh! and I also—I am unhappy—be assured.

"Sir, go up stairs into your room again: you must," said the marchioness.

"Yes, that I may again be face to face with you; shut up like a prisoner! That may be very well, when I am mad."

"Yes, yes, my father, you are right. My mother has devoted herself to you long enough; it is now time that your daughter should perform that duty. Take me with you, father. I will not leave you day or night. You will only have to make a sign, to utter a word, and I will serve you on my knees."

"Oh! you would not have the strength to do it."

"Yes, yes, my father, I will—as truly as I am your daughter."

The marchioness wrung her hands with impatience.

"If you are my daughter, how is it that I have not seen you for ten years?"

"Because I was told that you would not see me, my father; because they told me that you did not love me."

"You were told that I would not see you—not see that angel face!" said he, taking her head between his hands, and looking at her with intense auction; "they told you that—they told you that a poor condemned soul did not wish for heaven! Who was it, then, that told you a father would not see his child? Who has dared to say, child, your father loves you not?"

"I!——" said the marchioness, again endeavoring to take Marguerite from her father's arms.

"You!" exclaimed the marquis, interrupting her: "it was you? To you then, has been confided the fatal mission of deceiving me in all my affections. All my griefs, then, must find their source in you? You wish, then, now to break the father's heart, as twenty years ago, you did that of the husband."

"You are delirious, sir," said the marchioness, loosing the arm of her daughter; and going to the right of the marquis, she whispered—"be silent!"

"No, madam, no, I am not now delirious," replied the marquis, "No! no! Say rather, say that,—and it will be the truth,—say that I am now between an angel who would recall me to reason, and a demon who wishes me again to become insane. No! No! I am not mad. Do you wish that I should prove it to you?" He rose, supporting himself on the arms of his chair. "Must I speak to you of letters, of adultery, of a duel?"

"I say," said the marchioness, grasping his arm, "I tell you that you are more forsaken by heaven than ever, when you utter such things, without reflecting as to whose ears are listening. Cast down your eyes, sir—look who is standing yonder, and then dare assert that you are not mad!"

"You are right;" said the marquis, falling back in his chair. "Your mother is right," continued he, addressing Marguerite—"I am mad, and you must not believe what I say, but what she says. Your mother is devotedness, virtue itself, and therefore, she has not sleepless nights, nor remorse, nor madness. What does your mother wish?"

"My misery, father; my everlasting misery."

"And how can I prevent this misery?" said the unhappy old man, with a most heart-rending anguish; "how can I, a poor, insane old man, prevent it? who thinks he always sees the blood issuing from a wound—who thinks he constantly hears a voice proceeding from a tomb!"

"Oh you can do all; say but one word and I am saved! They wish me to marry—"

The marquis listlessly reclined his head on the back of his chair.

"Listen to me! they wish to marry me to a man whom I do not love—do you understand me?—to a wretch!—and you have been brought here—placed in that arm-chair, before the table—you, you my father! to sign this infamous contract—this contract which I now hand to you."

"Without consulting me," said the marquis, taking the contract; "without asking me whether I will, or I will not! Do they believe me dead? And if they think me dead, do they fear me less than they would a spectre? This marriage would cause your misery, you say?"

"My eternal misery!" exclaimed Marguerite. "The marriage, then, shall not take place."

"I have pledged your word and mine," said the marchioness, and with the more energy, that she felt her influence over her husband about to escape her.

"This marriage, I tell you, shall not take place!" replied the marquis, in a tone louder than that of his wife. "It is too dreadful a thing," continued he, in a gloomy sepulchral tone, "to be permitted. A marriage in which a wife loves not her husband—why, it causes madness! As to myself, the marchioness has always loved me, and loved me faithfully—that which drove me mad—oh! that was a different matter."

A flash of diabolical joy shot from the eyes of the marchioness, for she at once saw from the violence of the expressions used by her husband, and the terror depicted on his features, that his insanity was about to return.

"This contract," said the marquis, and he raised it in his hands as if about to tear it.

The marchioness eagerly caught his hand. Marguerite appeared to be hanging by a thread between heaven and hell.

"That which drives me mad!" reiterated the marquis, "is a tomb which widely opens, a spectre that issues from the earth, it is a phantom that speaks to me, and says—"

"Your life is in my hands!" murmured the marchioness in his ear, repeating the last words of the dying Morlaix: "I could take it."

"Do you hear that?" cried the marquis, rising, and as if about to rush from the room.

"My father! oh! my father! recall your senses; there is no tomb, there is no spectre, there is no phantom; those words were uttered by the marchioness."

"But I wish you to live," continued the latter, concluding the sentence she had begun, "to forgive me as I forgive you."

"Pardon, Morlaix, pardon!" cried the marquis, falling back in his arm-chair, his hair standing on end with terror, and the perspiration streaming from his forehead.

"Oh! father! father!"

"You see that your father is altogether deranged," said the marchioness, triumphantly; "say no more to him."

"Oh!" cried Marguerite, "God will, I trust perform a miracle! My love, my caresses, my tears, will restore him to reason."

"Make the attempt," replied the marchioness, coldly, abandoning to her care the marquis, who was powerless, speechless, and almost without consciousness.

"Oh! my poor father!" exclaimed Marguerite, in a tone of agony.

The marquis remained perfectly impassible.

"Sir!" said the marchioness, in an imperative manner.

"Eh! eh!" cried the marquis, shuddering.

"Save me! oh! save me, father!" cried Marguerite, wringing her hands, and throwing herself back in despair.

"Take this pen and sign," said the marchioness, "you must—it is my will."

"Now, I am lost indeed!" cried Marguerite, overwhelmed with terror, and feeling that she had no longer strength to continue the struggle.

But at the moment that the marquis, overpowered, had written the first letters of his name; when the marchioness was congratulating herself on the victory she had obtained, and Marguerite was about to leave the room in despair, an unexpected incident suddenly changed the scene. The door of the study opened, and Paul, who had been anxiously watching, though invisibly, the whole of this terrible conflict, issued from it.

"Madam," said he, "one word before this contract is signed!"

"Who is it calls me!" said the marchioness, endeavoring to distinguish in the distance that separated them, the person who had thus spoken, and who stood in a dark corner of the room.

"I know that voice!" exclaimed the marquis, shuddering, as if seared by a red-hot iron.

Paul advanced three paces, and the light from the lustre hanging in the centre of the room fell full upon him.

"Is it a spectre?" cried the marchioness, in her turn, struck with the resemblance of the youth who stood before her to her former lover.

"I know that face!" cried the marquis, believing that he saw the man whom he had killed.

"My God! my God! protect me," stammered Marguerite, raising her eyes and hands to heaven.

"Morlaix! Morlaix!" said the marquis, rising and advancing toward Paul, "Morlaix!—pardon! mercy!" and he fell at full length upon the floor.

"My father!" cried Marguerite, rushing to his assistance.

At that moment a servant entered the room, with terror in his looks, and addressing the marchioness said—

"Madam, Achard has sent to request that the priest and the doctor of the castle, may instantly be ordered to attend him—he is dying."

"Tell him," replied the marchioness, pointing to her husband, whom Marguerite was vainly endeavoring to restore to consciousness, "that they are both obliged to remain here to attend upon the marquis."



Alexandre Dumas pere

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