Thou canst save me, Thou ought'st! thou must! I tell thee at his feet I'll fall a corse, ere mount his bridal bed! Go choose betwixt my rescue and my grave.--Knowles.—The hunchbach
Notwithstanding the dreadful nature of the events which had occurred during that fatal night, Paul had not forgotten the mortal defiance which had been exchanged between himself and Lectoure. As that young gentleman would probably not know where to find him, he thought it only decorous to save Lectoure the trouble of seeking for him, and about seven in the morning, Lieutenant Walter presented himself at the castle, being charged on behalf of Paul to arrange the terms of the combat. He found Emanuel in Lectoure's apartment. The latter, on perceiving the officer, withdrew, and went down into the park, that the two young men might more freely discuss the matter. Walter had received from his commander directions to accede to every thing that might be proposed. The preliminary terms were, therefore, very speedily arranged; and it was agreed between them, that the meeting should take place in the afternoon, at four o'clock. The place of rendezvous the sea-side, near the fisherman's hut, which was about half-way between Port Louis and Auray castle. As to the weapons, they were to bring their pistols and their swords; it would be decided on the spot which they were to use, it being clearly understood that Lectoure, having been the party insulted, should have the right to make his choice.
As to the marchioness, although in the first instance petrified by the unexpected appearance of Paul, she soon recovered all her natural firmness, and drawing her veil over her face, she withdrew from the chamber, and walked across the outer room which had remained in darkness. She did not, therefore, perceive Marguerite, who was kneeling in one corner of it, mute from astonishment and terror. She after that crossed the park, entered the castle, and repaired to the room in which the scene of the contract had taken place. There, by the dying light of the wax tapers, with both her elbows resting on the table, her head supported on her hands, her eyes riveted to the paper to which Lectoure had already affixed his name, and the marquis had signed the half of his, she passed the remainder of the night reflecting upon a new determination. Thus she awaited the coming day without even thinking of taking the least repose, so powerfully did her soul of adamant support the body in which it was enclosed. This resolution was to get Emanuel and Marguerite away from the castle as speedily as possible, for it was from her children, most especially, that she desired to conceal that which was about to take place between Paul and herself.
Marguerite, who had been thus most unexpectedly present at the death-bed of the marquis and of Achard, through which she had so providentially discovered her mother's secret, rushed into Paul's arms immediately after her mother's departure from the cottage, exclaiming:
"Oh! now you are really my brother."
Her tears choked further utterance, and it was some minutes before Paul could tranquillize her agitated spirit, torn by so many and such conflicting emotions. Paul then fearing that the marchioness might enquire for her daughter, on her arrival at the castle, urged Marguerite to hasten thither; and seeing she was still trembling at the recollection of the many horrors she had witnessed, led her out of the cottage, of which he locked the door, and accompanied her to within a few paces of the castle. During this walk, Marguerite had in a certain degree, recovered her composure. Paul stood gazing at her till he saw that she had safely entered the court yard, and then returned to watch and pray beside the body of his father's faithful servant.
At seven o'clock, the marchioness hearing the noise occasioned by Lieutenant Walter's arrival at the castle, reached a bell which was standing on the table and rang it. A servant presented himself at the door in the grand livery he had worn the previous evening—it was easy to perceive that he also had not been in bed.
"Inform Mademoiselle d'Auray, that her mother is waiting for her in the drawing room," said the marchioness.
The servant obeyed, and the marchioness resumed, gloomy and motionless, her previous attitude. In a few minutes afterward, she heard a slight noise behind her, and turned round. It was Marguerite. The young girl, with more respect, perhaps, than she had ever before evinced, held out her hand toward her mother, that she might give her her hand to kiss. But the marchioness remained motionless, as if she had not understood the intention of her daughter. Marguerite let fall her hand, and silently awaited her mother's pleasure. She also wore the same dress as the night before. Sleep had hovered over the whole world, but had forgotten the inhabitants of Auray castle.
"Come nearer," said the marchioness.
Marguerite advanced one step.
"Why is it that you are thus pale and trembling," continued the marchioness.
"Madam," murmured Marguerite.
"Speak," said the marchioness.
"The death of my father—so sudden—so unexpected," stammered Marguerite; "indeed I have suffered so much this night."
"Yes, yes," rejoined the marchioness, in a hollow tone, but fixing on her daughter looks which were not altogether void of affection: "yes, the young tree bends before the wind, and is stripped of its leaves. The old oak alone withstands every tempest. I, also, have suffered, Marguerite, and suffered much. I have passed a dreadful night, and yet you see me calm and firm."
"God has endowed you with a soul, my mother, firm and austere; but you should not expect the same strength and firmness in the souls of others. You would destroy them."
"And therefore is it," replied the marchioness, letting her hand fall upon the table, "that all I ask of you is obedience. The marquis is dead, Marguerite, and Emanuel is now the head of the family. You must immediately set out for Bennes with Emanuel."
"I!" exclaimed Marguerite, "I set out for Bennes! and for what purpose?"
"Because the chapel of the castle is too narrow to contain at the same moment the wedding party of the daughter, and the funeral procession of the father."
"My mother!" replied Marguerite with an indescribable accent of anguish, "it would seem to me to be more pious to place a longer interval between two ceremonies of so opposite a nature."
"True piety," rejoined the marchioness, "should lead us to fulfil the last wishes of the dead. Cast your eyes upon this contract, and see the first letters of your father's name."
"Oh! madam!" cried Marguerite, "allow me to ask you whether my father, when he traced these letters, which death prevented him from finishing, was in possession of his faculties, and did he write them of his own free will?"
"Of that, I am ignorant, mademoiselle," replied the marchioness, with that imperative and icy tone, which until this time had subjected all that approached her.
"I am ignorant of that, but this I know, that the influence which made him thus act, he fully understood; and I know, also, that parents, as long as they exist, should, in the eyes of their children, have the authority of God. Now, God has ordained me to effect things terrible in themselves, and I have obeyed. Do as I have done, mademoiselle, obey!"
"Madam," said Marguerite, who had remained standing, but who now seemed motionless, with somewhat of that determined tone, which in her mother was so terrible, and in which she had inherited from her; "madam! it is only three days ago, that with tearful eyes, I threw myself first at the feet of Emanuel, then at the feet of the man whom you would compel me to receive as my husband, and then at my father's. Neither of them would or could listen to me, for grasping ambition, or reckless madness hardened their hearts, and drowned my voice. At length, I am now at your feet, my mother, you are the last whom I can supplicate, but also, you are best capable of understanding me, Listen, then, attentively, to what I am about to say. Had I only to sacrifice my own happiness to your will, I would make that sacrifice: my love! I would sacrifice that also; but I must also sacrifice my son.—You are a mother, and I also, madam."
"A mother!—a mother!" cried the marchioness.
"Yes! a mother, but by a dreadful fault——"
"Be that as it may, madam, still I am a mother, and the feelings of a mother need not be sanctified, in order to be holy. Well, then, madam, tell me—for you should better comprehend these things than I—tell me if those who have given us birth, have received from heaven a voice which speaks to our hearts—have not those to whom we have given birth a voice as powerful, and when these two voices are opposed to each other, to which ought we to obey?"
"You will never hear the voice of your child." said the marchioness; "for you will never again see him."
"I shall never again see my son!" exclaimed Marguerite, "and who, madam, can assert that positively?"
"He will himself be ignorant as to whose son he is."
"And should he some day discover it?" replied Marguerite; whose respect as a daughter was giving way before her mother's harshness; "if he should then come to me and demand an account of his birth—and this may happen, madam,"—she took up the pen—"and, with such an alternative awaiting me, tell me, ought I to sign this contract?"
"Sign it," said the marchioness.
"But," observed Marguerite, placing her trembling and convulsed fingers upon the contract, "should my husband some day discover the existence of this child; should he demand an explanation from my lover, of the wrong committed against his name and honor? If in a desperate duel, alone and without seconds—a duel in which it is agreed that one must fall, he should kill that lover, and then, tormented by his conscience, pursued by a voice from the tomb, my husband should at length become deprived of reason—"
"Be silent!" cried the marchioness, her features quivering with terror, but still doubting whether it was chance, or some unheard of discovery which dictated the words her daughter had employed: "be silent!"
"You would have me, then," continued Marguerite, who had now said too much to pause, "you would have me, then, in order to preserve my name, and that of my other children, pure and unsullied, that I should immure myself with a man deprived of reason! you would have me banish from my sight, and from his, every living being, and that I should render my heart iron, that I may no longer feel—that my eyes should never shed a tear! You would have me, then, clothe myself in mourning as a widow, before my husband's death? You would have my hair turn white, twenty years before the accustomed time?"
"Be silent! say not another word!" cried the marchioness, in a tone which proved that menaces were giving way to fear: "be silent!"
"You would have me, then," continued Marguerite, carried away by the bitterness of her grief; "you would have me, then, in order that the dreadful secret might die with those who have the keeping of it, that I should banish from their death-beds, both priest and physician—you would, in fine, that I should wander from one death-bed to another, that I might close, not the eyes, but the mouths of the dying."
"Be silent! in the name of heaven! be silent!" again cried the marchioness, wringing her hands.
"Well, then," continued Marguerite, "tell me again, my mother, to sign this paper, and all this will happen, and the malediction of the Lord will be accomplished, and the faults of the fathers shall be visited upon the children, even to the third and fourth generations."
"Ah! my God! my God!" exclaimed the marchioness, bursting into tears, "am I not sufficiently humbled—am I not sufficiently punished?"
"Pardon! pardon! madam," cried Marguerite, recalled to filial feeling by the first tears she had ever seen her mother shed; "I implore you to forgive me."
"Yes, pardon! ask for forgiveness, unnatural daughter," said the marchioness, advancing toward Marguerite, "you who have wrenched the scourge from the hands of eternal vengeance, and have yourself applied the lash even on your mother's forehead."
"Mercy! mercy!" reiterated Marguerite; "pardon me, my mother. I knew not what I said. You had deprived me of reason—-I was mad!"
"Oh! my God! my God," said the marchioness, raising both her hands above her daughter's head, "Thou hast heard the words which have issued from my daughter's lips. It would be too much to hope that thy mercy will forget them; but at the moment thou shalt punish her, remember that I have not cursed her!"
She then moved toward the door; her daughter endeavored to retain her, but the marchioness turned toward her with an expression of countenance so fearful, that without needing to lay a command upon her, Marguerite dropped the skirt of her mother's dress, and remained with arms outstretched towards her, mute and palpitating, until the marchioness had disappeared. And when she no longer saw her, she threw herself upon the ground with so piercing a shriek, that it might have been deemed that the heart which had so much suffered, had at length broken.