The twenty-four hours wore themselves away, and the next morning Newman sprang to his feet with the resolution to return to Fleurieres and demand another interview with Madame de Bellegarde and her son. He lost no time in putting it into practice. As he rolled swiftly over the excellent road in the little caleche furnished him at the inn at Poitiers, he drew forth, as it were, from the very safe place in his mind to which he had consigned it, the last information given him by poor Valentin. Valentin had told him he could do something with it, and Newman thought it would be well to have it at hand. This was of course not the first time, lately, that Newman had given it his attention. It was information in the rough,-- it was dark and puzzling; but Newman was neither helpless nor afraid. Valentin had evidently meant to put him in possession of a powerful instrument, though he could not be said to have placed the handle very securely within his grasp. But if he had not really told him the secret, he had at least given him the clew to it-- a clew of which that queer old Mrs. Bread held the other end. Mrs. Bread had always looked to Newman as if she knew secrets; and as he apparently enjoyed her esteem, he suspected she might be induced to share her knowledge with him. So long as there was only Mrs. Bread to deal with, he felt easy. As to what there was to find out, he had only one fear-- that it might not be bad enough. Then, when the image of the marquise and her son rose before him again, standing side by side, the old woman's hand in Urbain's arm, and the same cold, unsociable fixedness in the eyes of each, he cried out to himself that the fear was groundless. There was blood in the secret at the very last! He arrived at Fleurieres almost in a state of elation; he had satisfied himself, logically, that in the presence of his threat of exposure they would, as he mentally phrased it, rattle down like unwound buckets. He remembered indeed that he must first catch his hare-- first ascertain what there was to expose; but after that, why shouldn't his happiness be as good as new again? Mother and son would drop their lovely victim in terror and take to hiding, and Madame de Cintre, left to herself, would surely come back to him. Give her a chance and she would rise to the surface, return to the light. How could she fail to perceive that his house would be much the most comfortable sort of convent?
Newman, as he had done before, left his conveyance at the inn and walked the short remaining distance to the chateau. When he reached the gate, however, a singular feeling took possession of him--a feeling which, strange as it may seem, had its source in its unfathomable good nature. He stood there a while, looking through the bars at the large, time-stained face of the edifice, and wondering to what crime it was that the dark old house, with its flowery name, had given convenient occasion. It had given occasion, first and last, to tyrannies and sufferings enough, Newman said to himself; it was an evil-looking place to live in. Then, suddenly, came the reflection-- What a horrible rubbish-heap of iniquity to fumble in! The attitude of inquisitor turned its ignobler face, and with the same movement Newman declared that the Bellegardes should have another chance. He would appeal once more directly to their sense of fairness, and not to their fear, and if they should be accessible to reason, he need know nothing worse about them than what he already knew. That was bad enough.
The gate-keeper let him in through the same stiff crevice as before, and he passed through the court and over the little rustic bridge on the moat. The door was opened before he had reached it, and, as if to put his clemency to rout with the suggestion of a richer opportunity, Mrs. Bread stood there awaiting him. Her face, as usual, looked as hopelessly blank as the tide-smoothed sea-sand, and her black garments seemed of an intenser sable. Newman had already learned that her strange inexpressiveness could be a vehicle for emotion, and he was not surprised at the muffled vivacity with which she whispered, "I thought you would try again, sir. I was looking out for you."
"I am glad to see you," said Newman; "I think you are my friend."
Mrs. Bread looked at him opaquely. "I wish you well sir; but it's vain wishing now."
"You know, then, how they have treated me?"
"Oh, sir," said Mrs. Bread, dryly, "I know everything."
Newman hesitated a moment. "Everything?"
Mrs. Bread gave him a glance somewhat more lucent. "I know at least too much, sir."
"One can never know too much. I congratulate you. I have come to see Madame de Bellegarde and her son," Newman added. "Are they at home? If they are not, I will wait."
"My lady is always at home," Mrs. Bread replied, "and the marquis is mostly with her."
"Please then tell them--one or the other, or both--that I am here and that I desire to see them."
Mrs. Bread hesitated. "May I take a great liberty, sir?"
"You have never taken a liberty but you have justified it," said Newman, with diplomatic urbanity.
Mrs. Bread dropped her wrinkled eyelids as if she were curtseying; but the curtsey stopped there; the occasion was too grave. "You have come to plead with them again, sir? Perhaps you don't know this--that Madame de Cintre returned this morning to Paris."
"Ah, she's gone!" And Newman, groaning, smote the pavement with his stick.
"She has gone straight to the convent--the Carmelites they call it. I see you know, sir. My lady and the marquis take it very ill. It was only last night she told them."
"Ah, she had kept it back, then?" cried Newman. "Good, good! And they are very fierce?"
"They are not pleased," said Mrs. Bread. "But they may well dislike it. They tell me it's most dreadful, sir; of all the nuns in Christendom the Carmelites are the worst. You may say they are really not human, sir; they make you give up everything--forever. And to think of HER there! If I was one that cried, sir, I could cry."
Newman looked at her an instant. "We mustn't cry, Mrs. Bread; we must act. Go and call them!" And he made a movement to enter farther.
But Mrs. Bread gently checked him. "May I take another liberty? I am told you were with my dearest Mr. Valentin, in his last hours. If you would tell me a word about him! The poor count was my own boy, sir; for the first year of his life he was hardly out of my arms; I taught him to speak. And the count spoke so well, sir! He always spoke well to his poor old Bread. When he grew up and took his pleasure he always had a kind word for me. And to die in that wild way! They have a story that he fought with a wine-merchant. I can't believe that, sir! And was he in great pain?"
"You are a wise, kind old woman, Mrs. Bread," said Newman. "I hoped I might see you with my own children in your arms. Perhaps I shall, yet." And he put out his hand. Mrs. Bread looked for a moment at his open palm, and then, as if fascinated by the novelty of the gesture, extended her own ladylike fingers. Newman held her hand firmly and deliberately, fixing his eyes upon her. "You want to know all about Mr. Valentin?" he said.
"It would be a sad pleasure, sir."
"I can tell you everything. Can you sometimes leave this place?"
"The chateau, sir? I really don't know. I never tried."
"Try, then; try hard. Try this evening, at dusk. Come to me in the old ruin there on the hill, in the court before the church. I will wait for you there; I have something very important to tell you. An old woman like you can do as she pleases."
Mrs. Bread stared, wondering, with parted lips. "Is it from the count, sir?" she asked.
"From the count--from his death-bed," said Newman.
"I will come, then. I will be bold, for once, for HIM."
She led Newman into the great drawing-room with which he had already made acquaintance, and retired to execute his commands. Newman waited a long time; at last he was on the point of ringing and repeating his request. He was looking round him for a bell when the marquis came in with his mother on his arm. It will be seen that Newman had a logical mind when I say that he declared to himself, in perfect good faith, as a result of Valentin's dark hints, that his adversaries looked grossly wicked. "There is no mistake about it now," he said to himself as they advanced. "They're a bad lot; they have pulled off the mask." Madame de Bellegarde and her son certainly bore in their faces the signs of extreme perturbation; they looked like people who had passed a sleepless night. Confronted, moreover, with an annoyance which they hoped they had disposed of, it was not natural that they should have any very tender glances to bestow upon Newman. He stood before them, and such eye-beams as they found available they leveled at him; Newman feeling as if the door of a sepulchre had suddenly been opened, and the damp darkness were being exhaled.
"You see I have come back," he said. "I have come to try again."
"It would be ridiculous," said M. de Bellegarde, "to pretend that we are glad to see you or that we don't question the taste of your visit."
"Oh, don't talk about taste," said Newman, with a laugh, "or that will bring us round to yours! If I consulted my taste I certainly shouldn't come to see you. Besides, I will make as short work as you please. Promise me to raise the blockade--to set Madame de Cintre at liberty-- and I will retire instantly."
"We hesitated as to whether we would see you," said Madame de Bellegarde; "and we were on the point of declining the honor. But it seemed to me that we should act with civility, as we have always done, and I wished to have the satisfaction of informing you that there are certain weaknesses that people of our way of feeling can be guilty of but once."
"You may be weak but once, but you will be audacious many times, madam,'' Newman answered. "I didn't come however, for conversational purposes. I came to say this, simply: that if you will write immediately to your daughter that you withdraw your opposition to her marriage, I will take care of the rest. You don't want her to turn nun-- you know more about the horrors of it than I do. Marrying a commercial person is better than that. Give me a letter to her, signed and sealed, saying you retract and that she may marry me with your blessing, and I will take it to her at the convent and bring her out. There's your chance--I call those easy terms."
"We look at the matter otherwise, you know. We call them very hard terms," said Urbain de Bellegarde. They had all remained standing rigidly in the middle of the room. "I think my mother will tell you that she would rather her daughter should become Soeur Catherine than Mrs. Newman."
But the old lady, with the serenity of supreme power, let her son make her epigrams for her. She only smiled, almost sweetly, shaking her head and repeating, "But once, Mr. Newman; but once!"
Nothing that Newman had ever seen or heard gave him such a sense of marble hardness as this movement and the tone that accompanied it. "Could anything compel you?" he asked. "Do you know of anything that would force you?"
"This language, sir," said the marquis, "addressed to people in bereavement and grief is beyond all qualification."
"In most cases," Newman answered, "your objection would have some weight, even admitting that Madame de Cintre's present intentions make time precious. But I have thought of what you speak of, and I have come here to-day without scruple simply because I consider your brother and you two very different parties. I see no connection between you. Your brother was ashamed of you. Lying there wounded and dying, the poor fellow apologized to me for your conduct. He apologized to me for that of his mother."
For a moment the effect of these words was as if Newman had struck a physical blow. A quick flush leaped into the faces of Madame de Bellegarde and her son, and they exchanged a glance like a twinkle of steel. Urbain uttered two words which Newman but half heard, but of which the sense came to him as it were in the reverberation of the sound, "Le miserable!"
"You show little respect for the living," said Madame de Bellegarde, "but at least respect the dead. Don't profane--don't insult-- the memory of my innocent son."
"I speak the simple truth," Newman declared, "and I speak it for a purpose. I repeat it--distinctly. Your son was utterly disgusted-- your son apologized."
Urbain de Bellegarde was frowning portentously, and Newman supposed he was frowning at poor Valentin's invidious image. Taken by surprise, his scant affection for his brother had made a momentary concession to dishonor. But not for an appreciable instant did his mother lower her flag. "You are immensely mistaken, sir," she said. "My son was sometimes light, but he was never indecent. He died faithful to his name."
"You simply misunderstood him," said the marquis, beginning to rally. "You affirm the impossible!"
"Oh, I don't care for poor Valentin's apology," said Newman. "It was far more painful than pleasant to me. This atrocious thing was not his fault; he never hurt me, or any one else; he was the soul of honor. But it shows how he took it."
"If you wish to prove that my poor brother, in his last moments, was out of his head, we can only say that under the melancholy circumstances nothing was more possible. But confine yourself to that."
"He was quite in his right mind," said Newman, with gentle but dangerous doggedness; "I have never seen him so bright and clever. It was terrible to see that witty, capable fellow dying such a death. You know I was very fond of your brother. And I have further proof of his sanity," Newman concluded.
The marquise gathered herself together majestically. "This is too gross!" she cried. "We decline to accept your story, sir--we repudiate it. Urbain, open the door." She turned away, with an imperious motion to her son, and passed rapidly down the length of the room. The marquis went with her and held the door open. Newman was left standing.
He lifted his finger, as a sign to M. de Bellegarde, who closed the door behind his mother and stood waiting. Newman slowly advanced, more silent, for the moment, than life. The two men stood face to face. Then Newman had a singular sensation; he felt his sense of injury almost brimming over into jocularity. "Come," he said, "you don't treat me well; at least admit that."
M. de Bellegarde looked at him from head to foot, and then, in the most delicate, best-bred voice, "I detest you, personally," he said.
"That's the way I feel to you, but for politeness sake I don't say it," said Newman. "It's singular I should want so much to be your brother-in-law, but I can't give it up. Let me try once more." And he paused a moment. "You have a secret--you have a skeleton in the closet."
M. de Bellegarde continued to look at him hard, but Newman could not see whether his eyes betrayed anything; the look of his eyes was always so strange. Newman paused again, and then went on. "You and your mother have committed a crime." At this M. de Bellegarde's eyes certainly did change; they seemed to flicker, like blown candles. Newman could see that he was profoundly startled; but there was something admirable in his self-control.
"Continue," said M. de Bellegarde.
Newman lifted a finger and made it waver a little in the air. "Need I continue? You are trembling."
"Pray where did you obtain this interesting information?" M. de Bellegarde asked, very softly.
"I shall be strictly accurate," said Newman. "I won't pretend to know more than I do. At present that is all I know. You have done something that you must hide, something that would damn you if it were known, something that would disgrace the name you are so proud of. I don't know what it is, but I can find out. Persist in your present course and I WILL find out. Change it, let your sister go in peace, and I will leave you alone. It's a bargain?"
The marquis almost succeeded in looking untroubled; the breaking up of the ice in his handsome countenance was an operation that was necessarily gradual. But Newman's mildly-syllabled argumentation seemed to press, and press, and presently he averted his eyes. He stood some moments, reflecting.
"My brother told you this," he said, looking up.
Newman hesitated a moment. "Yes, your brother told me."
The marquis smiled, handsomely. "Didn't I say that he was out of his mind?"
"He was out of his mind if I don't find out. He was very much in it if I do."
M. de Bellegarde gave a shrug. "Eh, sir, find out or not, as you please."
"I don't frighten you?" demanded Newman.
"That's for you to judge."
"No, it's for you to judge, at your leisure. Think it over, feel yourself all round. I will give you an hour or two. I can't give you more, for how do we know how fast they may be making Madame de Cintre a nun? Talk it over with your mother; let her judge whether she is frightened. I don't believe she is as easily frightened, in general, as you; but you will see. I will go and wait in the village, at the inn, and I beg you to let me know as soon as possible. Say by three o'clock. A simple YES or NO on paper will do. Only, you know, in case of a yes I shall expect you, this time, to stick to your bargain." And with this Newman opened the door and let himself out. The marquis did not move, and Newman, retiring, gave him another look. "At the inn, in the village," he repeated. Then he turned away altogether and passed out of the house.
He was extremely excited by what he had been doing, for it was inevitable that there should be a certain emotion in calling up the spectre of dishonor before a family a thousand years old. But he went back to the inn and contrived to wait there, deliberately, for the next two hours. He thought it more than probable that Urbain de Bellegarde would give no sign; for an answer to his challenge, in either sense, would be a confession of guilt. What he most expected was silence--in other words defiance. But he prayed that, as he imagined it, his shot might bring them down. It did bring, by three o'clock, a note, delivered by a footman; a note addressed in Urbain de Bellegarde's handsome English hand. It ran as follows:--
"I cannot deny myself the satisfaction of letting you know that I return to Paris, to-morrow, with my mother, in order that we may see my sister and confirm her in the resolution which is the most effectual reply to your audacious pertinacity.
HENRI-URBAIN DE BELLEGARDE."
Newman put the letter into his pocket, and continued his walk up and down the inn-parlor. He had spent most of his time, for the past week, in walking up and down. He continued to measure the length of the little salle of the Armes de Prance until the day began to wane, when he went out to keep his rendezvous with Mrs. Bread. The path which led up the hill to the ruin was easy to find, and Newman in a short time had followed it to the top. He passed beneath the rugged arch of the castle wall, and looked about him in the early dusk for an old woman in black. The castle yard was empty, but the door of the church was open. Newman went into the little nave and of course found a deeper dusk than without. A couple of tapers, however, twinkled on the altar and just enabled him to perceive a figure seated by one of the pillars. Closer inspection helped him to recognize Mrs. Bread, in spite of the fact that she was dressed with unwonted splendor. She wore a large black silk bonnet, with imposing bows of crape, and an old black satin dress disposed itself in vaguely lustrous folds about her person. She had judged it proper to the occasion to appear in her stateliest apparel. She had been sitting with her eyes fixed upon the ground, but when Newman passed before her she looked up at him, and then she rose.
"Are you a Catholic, Mrs. Bread?" he asked.
"No, sir; I'm a good Church-of-England woman, very Low," she answered. "But I thought I should be safer in here than outside. I was never out in the evening before, sir."
"We shall be safer," said Newman, "where no one can hear us." And he led the way back into the castle court and then followed a path beside the church, which he was sure must lead into another part of the ruin. He was not deceived. It wandered along the crest of the hill and terminated before a fragment of wall pierced by a rough aperture which had once been a door. Through this aperture Newman passed and found himself in a nook peculiarly favorable to quiet conversation, as probably many an earnest couple, otherwise assorted than our friends, had assured themselves. The hill sloped abruptly away, and on the remnant of its crest were scattered two or three fragments of stone. Beneath, over the plain, lay the gathered twilight, through which, in the near distance, gleamed two or three lights from the chateau. Mrs. Bread rustled slowly after her guide, and Newman, satisfying himself that one of the fallen stones was steady, proposed to her to sit upon it. She cautiously complied, and he placed himself upon another, near her.