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Chapter 4

THE MARCHIONESS.


     She was a woman Of virtue most austere; noble in birth,
     And of most royal presence—but sad thoughts
     Seemed to possess her wholly—her children, even,
     Seldom approached her, and when they did,
     No soft affection, motherly caress,
     Was e'er accorded to them—stern and cold,
     She looked a moving statue.—Old Play.

About six months after the occurrence of the events we have just related, and in the early part of the spring of 1780, a post chaise, whose wheels and panels covered with mud and dust, clearly certified that it had performed a long journey, was dragging slowly along, although two powerful horses were harnessed to it, upon the road between Vanness and Auray. The traveller it contained, and who was roughly jolted in traversing the cross-roads, was our former aquaintance, Count Emanuel, whom we saw open the scene upon the jetty of Fort Louis. He was coming from Paris with all haste, and proceeding to his ancient family mansion, with regard to which it is now necessary to give some more precise and circumstantial details.

Count Emanuel d'Auray was descended from one of the oldest families in Brittany—one of his ancestors had followed Saint Louis to the Holy Land, and from that time the name, of which he was the last inheritor, had been constantly blended with the history of our monarchy, whether in its victories or defeats. His father, the Marquis of d'Auray, Chevalier of the order of St. Louis, Commander of the order of St. Michael, and Grand Cross of the order of the Holy Ghost, enjoyed at the Court of Louis XV., in which he filled the post of high steward, that high distinction to which his birth, his fortune and nis personal merit, truly entitled him. His influence there had been increased by his marriage with Mademoiselle de Sable, who was his equal in every thing that regarded family or credit at court: so that a brilliant future was opened to the ambition of the young people, when, after being married five years, a report was suddenly spread about the court, that the Marquis d'Auray had become insane during a journey he had made to his estates. This report was for a long time disbelieved. At length the winter arrived, and neither the marquis nor his wife made their appearance at Versailles. His place was kept open for him another year, for the king, still hoping he would regain his reason, refused to appoint a successor to it; but a second winter passed on, and even the marchioness did not return to pay her court to the queen. In France people are soon forgotten; absence is a wearying malady, to which even the greatest names sooner or later must succumb. The shroud of indifference was gradually spread over this family, immured in their old chateau, as in a tomb, and whose voices were not heard either soliciting or complaining. Genealogists alone had duly enregistered the birth of a son and daughter, the only fruits of this union; the d'Aurays, therefore, continued to figure among the names of the French nobility; but not having mixed themselves up for more than twenty years either in court intrigues or in political affairs, not having sided either with a Pampadour or a Du Barry, not having distinguished themselves in the victories of the Maréchal de Broglie, or in the defeats of the Count Clermont—in short, having neither sound nor echo, they had been completely forgotten.

However, the ancient name of the lords of d'Auray had been twice pronounced at court, but without producing any impression. The first time on the occasion of the young Count Emanuel's being admitted in 1769, as one of the pages of Louis XV., and the second, when after having served his time as page, he entered the company of mousquetaires of the young King Louis XVI. He had, during this time, become acquainted with the Baron de Lectoure, a distant relation of M. de Maurepas, who was favorably disposed towards him, and who enjoyed a considerable degree of influence with that minister. Emanuel had been presented to his old courtier, who having been informed that the Count d'Auray had a sister, one day let fall a few words upon the possibility of an union between the two families. Emanuel, young and full of ambition, wearied with struggling beneath the veil which had obscured his family name, saw in this marriage a means of regaining the position which his father had occupied at court under the late king, and had eagerly caught at the first overtures for this alliance. M. de Lectoure, on his side, under the pretext of uniting himself still closer by the bands of brotherhood, to his young friend, had urged his suit with an eagerness which was so much the more flattering to Emanuel, that the man who demanded the hand of his sister had never seen her. The Marchioness d'Auray had listened the more readily to this proposal, as it opened to her son the road to royal favor, and the marriage was agreed upon, if not between the two young people, at all events between the families. Emanuel, who preceded M. de Lectoure three or four days only, had hastened into the country to inform his mother that everything had been arranged according to her desire. As to Marguerite, the intended wife, they contented themselves with informing her of the resolution they had taken without thinking it necessary to ask her consent to it, in about the same way that a criminal is informed of the sentence which condemns him to the scaffold.

It was, therefore, thus cradling himself in the brilliant dreams of future exalted favor, and bouying himself up with the most elevated projects of ambition, that young Count Emanuel re-entered the gloomy castle of his family, whose feudal towers, black walls, and court yards, overgrown with grass, formed so striking a contrast with the golden hopes that agitated him. The castle was a league and a half distant from any other dwelling. The principal facade overlooked that part of the ocean, which being so constantly swept by storms, has obtained the name of "the Wild Sea." The other looked toward an immense park, which, being for twenty years abandoned and uncultivated, had become a complete forest. As to the apartments, they had remained constantly closed, with the exception of those inhabited by the family. The furniture, which had been renewed during the reign of Louis XIV., had, thanks to the care of a numerous household, retained a rich and aristocratic appearance, which the more modern part of it had begun to lose, and which, although more elegant, was less magnificent. It had been supplied from the workshops of Boule, the appointed upholsterer of the court.

It was into one of these rooms, with deep mouldings, sculptured chimney pieces, and ceiling painted in fresco, that the Count Emanuel was ushered on alighting from his carriage. He was in such haste to communicate to his mother the happy news of which he was the bearer, that without taking the time to change his dress, he threw his hat, his gloves, and travelling pistols on the table, and ordered an old servant to inform the marchioness of his arrival, and to ask her permission to present himself, saying that he would await it in that room; for such in this old family was the respect paid to parents, that the son, after an absence of five months, did not dare to present himself to his mother, without in the first place consulting her desires upon the subject. As to the Marquis d'Auray, his children could not remember having seen him more than two or three times, and then it was by stealth: for his insanity was of a nature, it was said, that certain objects irritated, and they had been always kept from him with the greatest precaution. The marchioness alone, a model of conjugal virtue, remained always with him, fulfilling towards the poor lunatic not only the duties of a wife, but also those of a servant. Consequently, her name was revered in the surrounding villages, as that of a saint, whose devotedness on earth has gained a place in heaven.

In a few moments the old servant returned, and announced that the marchioness d'Auray preferred coming down to him, and begged that the count would wait for her in the room in which he then was. Almost immediately afterward the door of the room again opened, and Emanuel's mother entered it. She was about forty or forty-five years of age, tall and pale, but still handsome, whose calm, austere and melancholy features had a singular appearance of haughtiness, energy, and command. She was in costume of a widow as adopted in 1760, for since the time that her husband had lost his reason, she had never laid aside her mourning garments. Her long black gown gave to her movements, cold and slow as those of a shadow, a solemn appearance, which shed around this extraordinary woman a feeling of awe, which even filial affection had never been able to surmount. Therefore, on seeing her, Emanuel started as at the sight of an unexpected apparition, and instantly rising, he advanced three steps toward her, respectfully went down upon one knee, and kissed the hand she presented to him.

"Rise, sir," said the marchioness. "I am happy to see you again." And she pronounced these words with as little emotion as if her son, who had been absent five months, had left her but the day before. Emanuel obeyed, conducted his mother to a large arm chair, in which she seated herself, and he remained standing before her.

"I received your letter, count," she said, "and I congratulate you on your skill. You appear to me born for diplomacy, and even more so than for military life. You ought to request the Baron de Lectoure to obtain an embassy for you, rather than a regiment."

"Lectoure is ready to solicit any thing we may desire, madam; and what is more, he will obtain any thing we may solicit, so great is his power with M. Maurepas, and so great is his love for my sister."

"In love with a woman he has never seen?"

"Lectoure is a gentleman, madam, and the portrait I have drawn of Marguerite, and perhaps the information he has received as to our fortune, has inspired him with the most earnest desire to become your son and to call himself my brother. And therefore he has requested that all the preliminary ceremonies may be gone through in his absence. You have obtained the publication of the bans, madam?"

"Yes."

"The day after to-morrow, then, the marriage contract can be signed."

"With the help of God, all will be ready."

"Thanks, madam."

"But tell me," continued the marchioness, leaning on the arm of her chair, and bending toward Emanuel, "has he not questioned you regarding that young man, for whom he obtained from the minister an order of deportation?"

"By no means, my mother, these are services which are asked without entering into any explanation, and which are granted in implicit confidence. It is well understood between people who know the world, that they are to be forgotten as soon as rendered."

"Then he knows nothing?"

"No—but did he know all——"

"Well?"

"Well, madam, I believe he is so much of a philosopher, that the discovery would not in any way influence his determination."

"I thought as much; he is a ruined spendthrift," replied the marchioness, with an indescribable expression of contempt, and as if speaking to herself.

"But supposing it should be so," said Emanuel anxiously, "your resolution would be still unchanged, I hope."

"Are we not rich enough to repair his fortune if he can restore our former influence?"

"Then, there is only my sister——"

"Do you doubt that she will obey me, when I inform her of my will?"

"Can you believe, then, that she has forgotten Lusignan?"

"For seven months, at least, she has not dared to remember him in my presence."

"Reflect, my mother, that this marriage is the only means by which our family can be restored to influence; for there is one thing I must not conceal from you. My father has been ill for fifteen years, and having been absent from court so long, was completely forgotten by the old king at his death, and by the young king on his accession to the throne. Your virtuous attention to the marquis, has not permitted you to leave him, even for a moment, since the hour in which he was deprived of reason; your virtues, madam, are of that nature which God sees, and recompenses, but of which the world remains ignorant; and while you are fulfilling in this old forgotten castle in Brittany, the holy and consolatory mission, which you call a duty, your former friends disappear, they die, or they forget you (this is a painful truth to people, who like us, can count six hundred years of illustrious nobility); for when I reappeared at court, our name, the name of the family d'Auray, was hardly known to their majesties, but as an historical recollection."

"Yes; I know full well that kings have but short memories," murmured the marchioness; but instantly, and as if reproaching herself for such a blasphemy, she rejoined, "I hope that the blessing of God may always attend their majesties and France."

"And what can in any way affect their happiness?" replied Emanuel, with that perfect confidence in the future, which in those days was the distinctive, characteristic of the hair-brained and unthinking nobility. "Louis XVI. is young and good; Marie Antoinette young and lovely; both of them beloved by a brave and loyal people. Fate has placed them, Heaven be praised, beyond the reach of every evil."

"No one, my son," replied the marchioness, mournfully shaking her head, "believe me, is placed beyond the reach of human woes and human frailty. No heart, however confidently its owner may believe that he can master it, firm as it may be, is proof against the passions; and no head, were it even a crowned one, but may be blanched in a single night. The people, you say, are brave and loyal." The marchioness arose and slowly advanced to the window, and with a solemn gesture pointing to the ocean. "Observe that sea; it is now calm and peaceful; and yet to-morrow, this night, in an hour perhaps, the breath of the tempest may bear us the cries of distress of unhappy beings it is about to engulph. Although I am separated from the world, strange reports sometimes reach my ears, borne as it were by invisible and prophetic spirits. Does there not exist a sect of philosophers which has led away men of high name, by the errors which it propagates? Do they not speak of a whole world, which is detaching itself from the mother country, whose children refuse to acknowledge their father? Is there not a people who style themselves a nation? Have I not heard it said that men of high birth have crossed the ocean, to offer to rebels, swords which their ancestors never drew but at the call of their legitimate sovereigns? and have I not been told, moreover, or is it but the dream of my solitude, that King Louis XVI. and the Queen, Marie Antoinette herself, forgetting that sovereigns are a family of brothers, have authorised these armed emigrations, and have given letters of marque to I know not what foreign pirate?"

"All this is true," said Emanuel, much astonished.

"May God, then, watch over their majesties, the King and Queen of France!" rejoined the marchioness as she slowly retired from the room, leaving Emanuel so astounded at these painful forebodings, that he saw her withdraw without uttering a word or even making a gesture to retain her.

Emanuel remained for some time pensive and serious, but soon his buoyant character surmounted these gloomy presages, and as if thinking to change his ideas by changing the view he had been gazing at, he left the window which opened towards the sea, and crossed the room to another, whence he could discern the whole of the plain which extends itself between d'Auray and Vannes. He had been there but a few minutes, when he perceived two persons on horseback, following the same road he had just travelled over, and who appeared to be approaching the castle. As they drew nearer he could distinguish that they were a gentleman and his servant. The first, dressed in the costume of young men of fashion of that day, that is to say, in a short green riding coat with gold frogs, stocking-knit breeches, and top-boots, wearing a round hat with a broad brim, and his hair tied with a large bow of ribbons. He was mounted on an English horse of rare beauty and great value, which he managed with a grace that proved he had made equestrian exercises a profound study. He was followed at a short distance by a servant, whose aristocratic livery was in perfect harmony with the lordly air of the person whom he served. Emanuel imagined for a moment on seeing them proceed so directly towards the castle, that it was the Baron de Lectoure, who, having hastened his departure from Paris, intended to surprise him; but he soon found that he was mistaken; and although it appeared to him that it was not the first time he had seen the horseman, he could not recollect where or under what circumstances he had met him. While he was racking his memory to discover the event in his life with which this vague remembrance was connected, the strangers had disappeared behind an angle of the castle wall. Five minutes afterwards Emanuel heard the sound of their horses' feet in the court yard, and, almost immediately the door was opened; a servant announced, "Mr. Paul!"



Alexandre Dumas pere

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