I shall a tale unfold Will harrow up thy soul; freeze thy young blood; Make thy two eyes like stars, start from their spheres; Thy knotted and combined locks to part. And each particular hair to stand on end, Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.--Shakespeare.
The old man seemed to be summoning up his recollections for a time, and then began:
"They were affianced to each other. I know not what mortal hatred it was that arose between the families and separated them. The Count de Morlaix, broken hearted, could not remain in France. He sailed for Saint Domingo, where his father possessed a large estate; I accompanied him, for the Count de Morlaix reposed much confidence in me. I was the son of her who had nursed him; I had received the same education as himself; he used to call me his brother, and I alone remembered the distance which nature had placed between us. The Marquis de Morlaix confided to me the charge of watching over his son, for I loved him with all the love of a father. We remained two years under a tropical sun; during that two years, your father, lost amid the solitude of that magnificent island, a traveller without an object and without an aim, an ardent and indefatigable sportsman, endeavouring to cure the griefs of the mind, by the fatigues of the body; but so far from succeeding, one would have thought that his heart became still more inflamed under that ardent sun. At length, after two years of trial and incessant struggles, his love conquered. He must either see her again or die. I yielded and we set sail for France. Never was a voyage more beautiful, or more prosperous. The sea and sky seemed to smile upon us; so favourable were they that it would have induced one to believe in lucky omens. Six weeks after our departure from Port au Prince, we landed at Havre. Mademoiselle de Sablé was married. The Marquis d'Auray was at Versailles, fulfilling at the court of Louis XV. the duties of his charge, and his wife, who was too much indisposed to follow him, was at the old chateau d'Auray, the turrets of which you see from this place."
"Yes, yes," said Paul, "I know it; pray go on."
"As to myself," rejoined the old map, "during our voyage, one of my uncles, an old servant of the house of Auray, had died, and left me this small house, with a small quantity of land surrounding it. I took possession of it. Your father had left me at Vannes, telling me he was going to Paris, and for the whole of the first year that I inherited this house I did not see him."
"One night,—it is exactly twenty-five years ago,—some one knocked at my door; I went to open it and found your father there, carrying in his arms a woman whose face was veiled. He brought her into this room, and laid her on that bed. And then returning to me in the adjoining room, where I was waiting mute and motionless with astonishment, he placed his hand upon my shoulder, and looking at me in a supplicating manner, although he had the right to command me, said, 'Louis, you can do more than save my life and honor—you can save the life and honor of her I love—get on horseback, gallop to the next town, and return here in an hour with a doctor.' He spoke to me in that short and hasty tone, which indicated that there was not a moment to be lost. I immediately obeyed. The day was beginning to break when we returned. The doctor was introduced by the Count de Morlaix into this room, the door of which was immediately closed: he remained there during the whole day; towards five in the afternoon, the doctor left the house, and at nightfall your father also left the house carrying in his arms the mysterious veiled lady whom he had brought the previous night. When they had gone, I came into this room and found you here—you had just been born."
"And how did you learn that this woman was the Marchioness d'Auray?"
"Oh!" exclaimed the old man, in a way which was as terrible as it was unexpected; "I had offered the Count de Morlaix to keep you here, and he accepted my proposal: from time to time he would come to spend an hour with you."
"Alone?" demanded Paul, with much anxiety.
"Yes, always; but as he had given me permission to walk with you in the park, it would sometimes happen that at the corner of one of the avenues I would meet the marchioness, whom chance appeared to have conducted in that direction. She would make you a sign to come to her, and she would kiss you as people kiss a strange child, because he is handsome. Four years passed on in this way, and then one night some one again knocked at this door, and it was again your father. He was more calm, but had, perhaps, a more gloomy look than on the first occasion. 'Louis,' said he, 'to-morrow, at the break of day, I have to meet the Marquis d'Auray. It is a duel in which one of us must fall, and you are to be the only witness of it. The terms are agreed upon. You must, therefore, give me shelter for this night, and let me have materials for writing.' He sat down at this table, on the very chair you are now seated."
Paul sprang up, but supported himself on the back of the chair, without again sitting down upon it. "He sat up all night. At day-break he came into my room and found me up—I had not gone to bed. As to you poor child, unconscious of the passions and miseries of this life, you were quietly sleeping."
"And then,—pray go on."
"Your father bent slowly over you, supporting himself by the wall, and looking sorrowfully upon you: 'Louis,' said he to me, in a hollow voice, 'should I be killed, and which may happen, wo to this child! You will deliver him with this letter to Field, my valet de chambre, whom I have charged to conduct him to Selkirk, in Scotland, there to leave him in sure hands. When he is twenty-five years old, he will bring you the other half of this gold coin, and will ask you to reveal to him the secret of his birth. You will communicate it; for then, perhaps, his mother will be alone and isolated. As to these papers which prove his birth, you will not deliver them to him, until after the death of the Marquis d'Auray. Now I have said all that is necessary, let us go, for it is the appointed hour. He then leaned over your bed, bent down toward you, and although he was a man of fortitude, as I have told you, I saw a tear fall upon your cheek."
"Proceed," said Paul, in a voice choked by emotion.
"The rendezvous was in one of the avenues of the park, about a hundred paces from this house. When we reached the place, we found the marquis there, he had been waiting for us some minutes. Near him upon a bank were pistols ready loaded. The adversaries bowed to each other without exchanging a word. The marquis pointed to the weapons—they each took one, and then, according to the terms which had been agreed upon, as your father had told me, they placed themselves, mute and gloomily, at the distance of thirty paces, and then began to walk towards each other. Oh! it was a moment ef agony for me, I can assure you," rejoined the old man, almost as much moved as if the scene were then actually passing before him, "when I saw the distance gradually diminishing between these two men. When they were only about ten paces, the marquis stopped and fired. I looked at your father; not a muscle of his face was moved, so that I thought him safe and unhurt. He continued to walk on till he came close to the marquis, and then placing the muzzle of the pistol to his heart—"
"He did not kill him, I trust," cried Paul seizing the old man's arm.
"He said to him, Your life is in my hands, sir, and I might take it, but I wish you to live, that you may pardon me, as I do you. And uttering these words, he fell dead at the feet of the marquis, whose ball had passed through his chest."
"Oh! my father! my father!" cried Paul, wringing his hands. "And the man who killed my father—he still lives, does he not? He is still young, and has strength enough to wield a sword or raise a pistol? We will go to him—to-day—instantly! You will tell him, that it is his son! that he must fight with him."
"God has avenged your father," replied Achard—"that man is mad."
"That is true—I had forgotten that," murmured Paul.
"And in his madness that bloody scene is ever before his eyes, and he repeats ten times a day the dying words your father addressed to him."
"And that must be the reason why the marchioness will not leave him for a single moment."
"And that is also the reason, under the pretext that he will not see his children, that she keeps Emanuel and Marguerite from him."
"My poor sister," said Paul, with an accent of undefinable tenderness; "and now she wishes to sacrifice her by forcing her to marry that wretch Lectoure."
"Yes, but that wretch Lectoure will take Marguerite with him to Paris, and give a regiment of dragoons to her brother, so that the marchioness will no longer have cause to dread the presence of her children. Her secret, therefore, remains henceforward in the breasts of two old men, who to-morrow, this night even, may die. The grave is silent."
"You! Does she know that you still exist! Has anything been heard of you since you escaped from Selkirk? Could not some accident have prevented you from coming to the appointment, which fortunately you have done safely? It is certain that she has not forgotten you, but she hopes"——
"Oh! can you believe that my mother"——
"I beg your pardon, that is true. I do not believe it!" cried Achard, "I was wrong; forget what I have said."
"Yes, yes, let us speak of you, my friend; let us speak of my father."
"Is it necessary that I should tell you that his last wishes were fulfilled. Field came to fetch you during the day, and took you away with him. Twenty-one years have passed since then, and since then not a single day has passed without my putting up a prayer that I might see you at the appointed time. My prayers have been granted," continued the old man; "and thanks be to God, you are here. Your father lives again in you—I once more see him—I am speaking to him. I weep no longer, I am now consoled."
"And he died thus, instantly, without a struggle, without a sigh?"
"Yes—I brought him here. I placed him on the bed in which you were born—I closed the door that no one might enter the house, and I went alone and dug his grave. I passed the whole day in this painful duty; for, according to the request of your father, to no one was to be confided this dreadful secret. In the evening I returned for the body. The heart of man is singularly constituted, and hope which God has planted in it can with difficulty be eradicated. I had seen him fall—I had felt his hands grow cold—I had kissed his ice-like face—I had left him, to hollow out his grave, and that grave being made, that duty being accomplished, I returned with a beating heart, for it appeared to me, although a miracle would be required for such a change, that during my absence life had returned to him, and that he would rise from his bed and speak to me. I entered the house—alas! alas! the days of miracles had passed away. Lazarus remained lying on his couch—dead! dead! dead!" and the old man remained for some time overwhelmed with grief, silent and voiceless, and tears rolled down his furrowed cheeks.
"Yes, yes," cried Paul, also bursting into tears; "yes, and you then fulfilled your holy mission. Good old man, let me kiss those hands which deposited my father in his last home. And you have remained faithful to his tomb as you had been to him during life. Poor guardian of the sepulchre; you have remained near him that your tears might water the grass which grew about the unknown grave. Oh! how little are those who think themselves great because their name resounds amid the tempest, and the cry of war, louder than the storm or the din of battle, in comparison with you, old man, whose devotedness has been mute and noiseless. Oh! give me your blessings lay those hallowed hands upon my head, since my father is not here to bless me," continued Paul, throwing himself on his knees before him.
"Rise to my arms—let me clasp you to my heart, my child, for you exaggerate these actions, in themselves so simple and so natural. And then, believe me, that which you term my piety has not been a useless lesson to me. I have seen how little space a man occupies beneath the ground, and how soon he is lost amid the world, should God turn his face from him. Your father was young, full of courage, with a brilliant career opening before him. Your father was the last descendant of an ancient line; he bore a noble name. His path seemed marked with honors and distinction; he had a family and powerful friends. Well, he suddenly disappeared, as if the earth had opened beneath his feet. I know not if some tearful eyes sought for him till they lost all trace of him; but this I know, that for one-and-twenty years no one has sought out his tomb—no one knows that he lies beneath that spot, where the grass is greener and grows more luxuriantly than elsewhere—and yet, vain, glorious, and miserable as he is, man considers himself of some value."
"Oh! and my mother, has she not visited his grave?"
The old man did not answer.
"Well, then! there will be two of us who henceforward will know the spot, where he reposes. Come, and show it to me; for I will return to it, I promise solemnly, every time my ship returns to the coast of France."
Saying this, he drew Achard into the outer room, but as they opened the door they heard a slight noise in the park. It was a servant from the castle, who had accompanied Marguerite. Paul hurriedly returned into the bedroom.
"It is my sister," said he to Achard; "leave me alone with her a moment. It is necessary that I should speak to her. I have something to communicate which will make her pass a happy night. We must have compassion for those who watch and weep."
"Reflect," said Achard, "that the secret I have revealed to you is your mother's."
"Fear not—I will speak to her but of that which concerns herself."
At that moment Marguerite entered the room.