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Chapter 8

THE SECRET.


More than ten years have passed since I beheld him,
The noble boy; now time annuls my oath
And cancels all his wrongs.
I took a solemn oath to veil the secret,
Conceal thy rights, while lived her lord,
And thus allow'd thy youth to quit my roof.--Bulwer.—The Sea Captain.

"Yes," said the old man, gazing after the marchioness as she withdrew, "yes, I know you have a heart of adamant, madam, insensible to every sort of fear, with the exception of that which God has placed within your breast to supply the place of remorse. But that suffices; and it is dearly buying that reputation you have obtained for virtue, to pay the price of such eternal terrors. It is true that the virtue of the Marchioness d'Auray is so firmly established, that if truth herself were to rise from the earth or to descend from heaven to arraign her, she would be treated as a calumniator. But God orders all things according to His will, and what He does ordain, His wisdom has long before matured."

"Rightly reasoned," cried a youthful and sonorous voice, replying to the religious axiom which the resignation of the old man had led him to utter. "Upon my word, good father, you speak like Ecclesiastes." Achard turned round and perceived Paul, who had arrived just as the marchioness left him, but who was so absorbed by the scene we have just described, that she had not observed the young captain. The latter, seeing the old man alone, approached him, and not hearing the last words he had uttered, had spoken with his usual good humor. Achard, who was surprised by his unexpected appearance, looked at him as if he wished him to repeat that which he had said.

"I say," resumed Paul, "that there is more grandeur in resignation that humbly bows itself, than in philosophy that doubts. That is a maxim of our quakers, which, for my eternal welfare, I wish I had less often on my tongue, and more frequently in my heart."

"I beg your pardon, sir," said the old man on seeing our adventurer, who was fixedly gazing at him, while standing with one foot on the threshold of his door. "May I know who you are?"

"For the moment," replied Paul, giving, as usual, free course to his poetical and heedless gaiety, "I am a child of the republic of Plato, having all human kind for brothers, the world for a country, and possessing upon this earth only the station I have worked out for myself."

"And what are you in search of?" continued the old man, smiling in spite of himself at the air of jovial good-nature which was spread over the features of the young man.

"I am seeking," replied Paul, "at three leagues distance from Lorient, at five hundred paces from resembles this one, and in which I am to find an old man, whom it is very likely is yourself."

"And what is the name of this old man?"

"Louis Achard."

"That is my name."

"Then may the blessing of heaven descend on your white hairs," said Paul, in a voice which at once changing its tone, assumed that of deep feeling and respect; "for here is a letter which I believe was written by my father, in which he says that you are an honest man."

"Does not that letter enclose something?" cried d'Auray, and advancing a step nearer to the young captain.

"It does," replied the latter, opening the letter and taking out of it one half of a Venetian sequin, which had been broken in two; "it seems to be part of a gold coin, of which I have one half, and you ought to be in possession of the other."

Achard mechanically held out his hand, while gazing with intense interest at the young man.

"Yes, yes," said the old man, and eyes gradually became more and more suffused with tears: "yes, this is the true token, and more than that, the extraordinary resemblance," and opening his arms, he cried, "child!—oh! my God! my God!"

"What is it?" cried Paul, extending his arms to support the old man, who was quite overcome by his emotions.

"Oh! can you not comprehend?" replied the latter, "can you not comprehend that you are the living portrait of your father, and that I loved your father—loved him so much that I would have shed my blood, have given my life to serve him, as I would now for you, young man, were you to demand it."

"Embrace me, then, my old friend," said Paul, throwing his arms around the old man, "for the chain of feeling, believe me, is not broken, which extended from the tomb of the father to the cradle of the son. Whatever my father may have been, if in order to resemble him it be only necessary to have a conscience without reproach, undaunted courage, and a memory which never forgets a benefit conferred, although it may sometimes forget an injury; if this be so, then am I, as you have said, my father's living portrait, and more so in soul than in form."

"Yes, he possessed all these," replied the old man, with solemnity, and clasping Paul to his breast, looking at him with affectionate though tearful tenderness—"Yes, he had the same commanding voice, the same flashing eyes, the same nobleness of heart. But why was it that I have not seen you sooner, young man? I have, during my life, passed many gloomy hours, which your presence would have brightened."

"Why—because this letter told me to seek you out only when I should have attained the age of twenty-five, and because it is not long since I attained that age, not more than an hour ago."

The old man bowed down his head with a pensive air, and remained silent for some time, seemingly absorbed by recollections of the past.

"Can it be so?" at length ne said, raising his head, "can it be twenty-five years ago. Good heaven! it appears to me only yesterday that you were born in this house, that you first saw the light in that very room:" and the old man raised his head, and pointed to a door which led into another room.

Paul, in his turn, appeared to reflect, and then, looking around him, to strengthen by the aid of objects which presented themselves to his view, the recollections which crowded on his memory.

"In this cottage, in that room," he repeated, "and I lived here till I was five years old, did I not?"

"Yes," murmured the old man, as if fearful to disturb the feelings which were taking possession of the young man's mind.

"Well," continued Paul, leaning his head on both his hands, as if to concentrate his thoughts, "allow me for one moment to look back, in my turn, to the past, for I am recollecting a room which I had thought I had seen in a dream—it may be that one. Listen to me! Oh! how strange it is—remembrances now rush upon me."

"Speak, my child, speak!" said the old man.

"It it be that room, there ought to be on the right, as you go in, at the end of the room, a bed with green hangings."

"Yes."

"A crucifix at the head of the bed."

"Yes."

"A closet opposite, in which were books, among the rest a large Bible, with numerous engravings."

"There it is," said the old man, pointing to the sacred book which was lying open on a desk for prayer.

"Oh! it is that—it is that," cried Paul, pressing his lips against the leaves.

"Oh! good and pious heart," cried the old man, "I thank thee, oh! my God—I thank thee."

"Then," said Paul, rising, "in that room there is a window, from which you can discern the sea, and on the sea, three islands?"

"Yes, Houat, Hoedic, and Belle-Ileen-mer.

"Then, it is really so," said Paul, rushing towards the room, and then perceiving that the old man was about to follow him, he said: "No, no! I must be alone—let me enter it alone—I feel that I must be alone," and he went into the room, closing the door after him.

He then paused a moment, impressed with that holy respect which accompanies the remembrance of our infancy. The room was as he had described it, for the religious devotedness of the old servant had preserved it from any change. Paul, feeling doubtless that the eye of a stranger would have interrupted the expression of the feelings he experienced, and now certain of being alone, abandoned himself to them He slowly advanced, and with clasped hands, towards the ivory crucifix; and falling on his knees, which formerly he had the habit of doing, morning and evening, he endeavoured to remember one of those simple prayers, in which a child, still on the threshold of this life, prays to God for those who have opened its gates to him. "What events had succeeded each other in the lapse of time which had passed between these genuflexions! Paul remained for a considerable time absorbed in thought, and then slowly arose, and went to the window. The night was beautiful and calm, the moon was shining in the heavens, and tipped the ocean waves with silver. The three islands appeared on the horizon, like blue vapor floating on the ocean. He remembered how often in his infancy he had leaned against that window, gazing upon that same scene, following with his eyes some bark, with its snowy sails, which glided silently over the sea, like the wing of a night bird. Then his heart swelled with sweet and tender recollection; his head fell upon his chest, and silent tears ran down his cheeks. At that moment he felt that some one pressed his hands—it was the old man—he wished to conceal his emotions; but instantly repenting this vain feeling, he turned toward Achard, and frankly let him see his face, down which the tears were streaming.

"You weep, my child," said the old man.

"Yes, I weep," replied Paul; "and why should I conceal it? Yea, look at me. And yet I have, during my life, witnessed dreadful scenes. I have seen the tempest bear my vessel to the summit of a mountain wave, and then sink her into an abyss, from which I thought she would never rise again; and I felt that she weighed no more upon the wings of the storm than does a dried leaf on the evening breeze. I have seen men fall around me like the ripe ears of corn before the sickle of the reaper. I have heard the cries of distress, and the dying groans of those whose meal I had shared but the day before. In order to receive their last sigh, I have walked amid a shower of bullets, and grape-shot, upon a plank slippery with blood. And yet, amid all this, my soul was calm—my eyes remained unmoistened. But this room, see you; this room, of which I had retained so holy a remembrance; this room, in which I had received the first caresses of a father whom I shall never see again, and the last kisses of a mother who perhaps desires no more to see me; this room is sacred as a cradle and as a tomb. I cannot thus revisit it without giving vent to my emotions; I must weep, or I shall suffocate." The old man clasped him in his arms. Paul leaned his head upon his shoulder, and during some time nothing was heard but his sobs. At length the old servant rejoined:

"Yes, you are right; this room is at once a cradle and a tomb; it was there that you were born;" he pointed to one corner with his hand; "and it was there that you received the last blessing of your father," continued he, pointing to the opposite side of the room.

"He is then dead?" said Paul.

"He is dead."

"You must tell me how he died."

"I will tell you all."

"Defer it for a moment," added Paul, as he reached a chair and seated himself, "for I am now too weak to listen to you. Let me recover myself." He placed his elbow on the window-sill, leaned his head upon his hand, and once more cast his eyes upon the sea.

"What a magnificent spectacle is the ocean when the moon shines upon it as brightly as it does now," continued he, with that accent of soft melancholy which was habitual to him. "It is as calm as God himself, and vast as eternity. I do not believe that a man accustomed to study such a scene can be afraid of death. My father met death bravely, did he not?"

"Assuredly!" proudly replied Achard.

"It could not be otherwise," continued Paul, "for I remember my father, although I was only four years old when I last saw him."

"He was a handsome young man, as you yourself are," said Achard, looking sorrowfully at Paul, "and just as old as you are."

"What was his name?"

"The Count de Moraix."

"Then I also am of an old and noble family. I also have arms and an escutcheon as well as those young and insolent nobles who ask me for my parchments when I show them my wounds?"

"Wait, young man, wait; do not allow pride to carry you thus away, for I have not yet told you the name of her who gave you being, and you are still ignorant of the dreadful secret of your birth."

"Well: be it so. I shall not with the less respect and veneration hear the name of my mother. What was my mother's name?"

"The Marchioness d'Auray," slowly replied the old man, as if regretting that he was compelled to mention her name.

"What is it that you tell me!" cried Paul, starting from his chair, and seizing the hands of the old man.

"The truth!" replied Achard, sorrowfully.

"Then Emanuel is my brother—Marguerite is my sister."

"Do you then already know them?" exclaimed the old servant, much astounded.

"Oh! you were right, old man," said Paul, throwing himself into his chair. "God orders all things according to His will, and what He does ordain, His wisdom has long before matured."

They both remained silent for a time, when at length Paul raised his head, and resolutely fixing his eyes on the old man's face, said:

"Now, I am ready to hear all you have to communicate—you may go on."



Alexandre Dumas pere

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