Towards the close of the last century the Baron de Beaurepaire lived in the chateau of that name in Brittany. His family was of prodigious antiquity; seven successive barons had already flourished on this spot when a younger son of the house accompanied his neighbor the Duke of Normandy in his descent on England, and was rewarded by a grant of English land, on which he dug a mote and built a chateau, and called it Beaurepaire (the worthy Saxons turned this into Borreper without delay). Since that day more than twenty gentlemen of the same lineage had held in turn the original chateau and lands, and handed them down to their present lord.
Thus rooted in his native Brittany, Henri Lionel Marie St. Quentin de Beaurepaire was as fortunate as any man can be pronounced before he dies. He had health, rank, a good income, a fair domain, a goodly house, a loving wife, and two lovely young daughters, all veneration and affection. Two months every year he visited the Faubourg St. Germain and the Court. At both every gentleman and every lacquey knew his name, and his face: his return to Brittany after this short absence was celebrated by a rustic fete.
Above all, Monsieur de Beaurepaire possessed that treasure of treasures, content. He hunted no heart-burns. Ambition did not tempt him; why should he listen to long speeches, and court the unworthy, and descend to intrigue, for so precarious and equivocal a prize as a place in the Government, when he could be De Beaurepaire without trouble or loss of self-respect? Social ambition could get little hold of him; let parvenus give balls half in doors, half out, and light two thousand lamps, and waste their substance battling and manoeuvring for fashionable distinction; he had nothing to gain by such foolery, nothing to lose by modest living; he was the twenty-ninth Baron of Beaurepaire. So wise, so proud, so little vain, so strong in health and wealth and honor, one would have said nothing less than an earthquake could shake this gentleman and his house. Yet both were shaken, though rooted by centuries to the soil; and by no vulgar earthquake.
For years France had bowed in silence beneath two galling burdens—a selfish and corrupt monarchy, and a multitudinous, privileged, lazy, and oppressive aristocracy, by whom the peasant was handled like a Russian serf. [Said peasant is now the principal proprietor of the soil.]
The lower orders rose upon their oppressors, and soon showed themselves far blacker specimens of the same breed. Law, religion, humanity, and common sense, hid their faces; innocent blood flowed in a stream, and terror reigned. To Monsieur de Beaurepaire these republicans—murderers of women, children, and kings—seemed the most horrible monsters nature had ever produced; he put on black, and retired from society; he felled timber, and raised large sums of money upon his estate. And one day he mounted his charger, and disappeared from the chateau.
Three months after this, a cavalier, dusty and pale, rode into the courtyard of Beaurepaire, and asked to see the baroness. She came to him; he hung his head and held her out a letter.
It contained a few sad words from Monsieur de Laroche-jaquelin. The baron had just fallen in La Vendee, fighting for the Crown.
From that hour till her death the baroness wore black.
The mourner would have been arrested, and perhaps beheaded, but for a friend, the last in the world on whom the family reckoned for any solid aid. Dr. Aubertin had lived in the chateau twenty years. He was a man of science, and did not care a button for money; so he had retired from the practice of medicine, and pursued his researches at ease under the baron's roof. They all loved him, and laughed at his occasional reveries, in the days of prosperity; and now, in one great crisis, the protege became the protector, to their astonishment and his own. But it was an age of ups and downs. This amiable theorist was one of the oldest verbal republicans in Europe. And why not? In theory a republic is the perfect form of government: it is merely in practice that it is impossible; it is only upon going off paper into reality, and trying actually to self-govern limited nations, after heating them white hot with the fire of politics and the bellows of bombast—that the thing resolves itself into bloodshed silvered with moonshine.
Dr. Aubertin had for years talked and written speculative republicanism. So they applied to him whether the baroness shared her husband's opinions, and he boldly assured them she did not; he added, "She is a pupil of mine." On this audacious statement they contented themselves with laying a heavy fine on the lands of Beaurepaire.
Assignats were abundant, but good mercantile paper, a notorious coward, had made itself wings and fled, and specie was creeping into strong boxes like a startled rabbit into its hole. The fine was paid; but Beaurepaire had to be heavily mortgaged, and the loan bore a high rate of interest. This, with the baron's previous mortgages, swamped the estate.
The baroness sold her carriage and horses, and she and her daughters prepared to deny themselves all but the bare necessaries of life, and pay off their debts if possible. On this their dependants fell away from them; their fair-weather friends came no longer near them; and many a flush of indignation crossed their brows, and many an aching pang their hearts, as adversity revealed the baseness and inconstancy of common people high or low.
When the other servants had retired with their wages, one Jacintha remained behind, and begged permission to speak to the baroness.
"What would you with me, my child?" asked that lady, with an accent in which a shade of surprise mingled with great politeness.
"Forgive me, madame," began Jacintha, with a formal courtesy; "but how can I leave you, and Mademoiselle Josephine, and Mademoiselle Rose? I was born at Beaurepaire; my mother died in the chateau: my father died in the village; but he had meat every day from the baron's own table, and fuel from the baron's wood, and died blessing the house of Beaurepaire. I CANNOT go. The others are gone because prosperity is here no longer. Let it be so; I will stay till the sun shines again upon the chateau, and then you shall send me away if you are bent on it; but not now, my ladies—oh, not now! Oh! oh! oh!" And the warm-hearted girl burst out sobbing ungracefully.
"My child," said the baroness, "these sentiments touch me, and honor you. But retire, if you please, while I consult my daughters."
Jacintha cut her sobs dead short, and retreated with a formal reverence.
The consultation consisted of the baroness opening her arms, and both her daughters embracing her at once. Proud as they were, they wept with joy at having made one friend amongst all their servants. Jacintha stayed.
As months rolled on, Rose de Beaurepaire recovered her natural gayety in spite of bereavement and poverty; so strong are youth, and health, and temperament. But her elder sister had a grief all her own: Captain Dujardin, a gallant young officer, well-born, and his own master, had courted her with her parents' consent; and, even when the baron began to look coldly on the soldier of the Republic, young Dujardin, though too proud to encounter the baron's irony and looks of scorn, would not yield love to pique. He came no more to the chateau, but he would wait hours and hours on the path to the little oratory in the park, on the bare chance of a passing word or even a kind look from Josephine. So much devotion gradually won a heart which in happier times she had been half encouraged to give him; and, when he left her on a military service of uncommon danger, the woman's reserve melted, and, in that moment of mutual grief and passion, she vowed she loved him better than all the world.
Letters from the camp breathing a devotion little short of worship fed her attachment; and more than one public mention of his name and services made her proud as well as fond of the fiery young soldier.
Still she did not open her heart to her parents. The baron, alive at that time, was exasperated against the Republic, and all who served it; and, as for the baroness, she was of the old school: a passionate love in a lady's heart before marriage was contrary to her notions of etiquette. Josephine loved Rose very tenderly; but shrank with modest delicacy from making her a confidante of feelings, the bare relation of which leaves the female hearer a child no longer.
So she hid her heart, and delicious first love nestled deep in her nature, and thrilled in every secret vein and fibre.
They had parted two years, and he had joined the army of the Pyrenees about one month, when suddenly all correspondence ceased on his part.
Restless anxiety rose into terror as this silence continued; and starting and trembling at every sound, and edging to the window at every footstep, Josephine expected hourly the tidings of her lover's death.
Months rolled on in silence.
Then a new torture came. He must not be dead but unfaithful. At this all the pride of her race was fired in her.
The struggle between love and ire was almost too much for nature: violently gay and moody by turns she alarmed both her mother and the good Dr. Aubertin. The latter was not, I think, quite without suspicion of the truth; however, he simply prescribed change of air and place; she must go to Frejus, a watering-place distant about five leagues. Mademoiselle de Beaurepaire yielded a languid assent. To her all places were alike.
But when they returned from Frejus a change had taken place. Rose had extracted her sister's secret, and was a changed girl. Pity, and the keen sense of Josephine's wrong, had raised her sisterly love to a passion. The great-hearted girl hovered about her lovely, suffering sister like an angel, and paid her the tender attentions of a devoted lover, and hated Camille Dujardin with all her heart: hated him all the more that she saw Josephine shrink even from her whenever she inveighed against him.
At last Rose heard some news of the truant lover. The fact is, this young lady was as intelligent as she was inexperienced; and she had asked Jacintha to tell Dard to talk to every soldier that passed through the village, and ask him if he knew anything about Captain Dujardin of the 17th regiment. Dard cross-examined about a hundred invalided warriors, who did not even recognize the captain's name; but at last, by extraordinary luck, he actually did fall in with two, who told him strange news about Captain Dujardin. And so then Dard told Jacintha; and Jacintha soon had the men into the kitchen and told Rose. Rose ran to tell Josephine; but stopped in the passage, and turned suddenly very cold. Her courage failed her; she feared Josephine would not take the news as she ought; and perhaps would not love her so well if SHE told her; so she thought to herself she would let the soldiers tell their own tale. She went into the room where Josephine was reading to the baroness and Dr. Aubertin; she sat quietly down; but at the first opportunity made Josephine one of those imperceptible signals which women, and above all, sisters, have reduced to so subtle a system. This done, she went carelessly out: and Josephine in due course followed her, and found her at the door.
"What is it?" said Josephine, earnestly.
"Have you courage?" was Rose's reply.
"He is dead?" said Josephine, turning pale as ashes.
"No, no;" said Rose hastily; "he is alive. But you will need all your courage."
"Since he lives I fear nothing," said Josephine; and stood there and quivered from head to foot. Rose, with pitying looks, took her by the hand and drew her in silence towards the kitchen.
Josephine yielded a mute submission at first; but at the very door hung back and faltered, "He loves another; he is married: let me go." Rose made no reply, but left her there and went into the kitchen and found two dragoons seated round a bottle of wine. They rose and saluted her.
"Be seated, my brave men," said she; "only please tell me what you told Jacintha about Captain Dujardin."
"Don't stain your mouth with the captain, my little lady. He is a traitor."
"How do you know?"
"Marcellus! mademoiselle asks us how we know Captain Dujardin to be a traitor. Speak."
Marcellus, thus appealed to, told Rose after his own fashion that he knew the captain well: that one day the captain rode out of the camp and never returned: that at first great anxiety was felt on his behalf, for the captain was a great favorite, and passed for the smartest soldier in the division: that after awhile anxiety gave place to some very awkward suspicions, and these suspicions it was his lot and his comrade's here to confirm. About a month later he and the said comrade and two more were sent, well mounted, to reconnoitre a Spanish village. At the door of a little inn they caught sight of a French uniform. This so excited their curiosity that he went forward nearer than prudent, and distinctly recognized Captain Dujardin seated at a table drinking between two guerillas; then he rode back and told the others, who then came up and satisfied themselves it was so: that if any of the party had entertained a doubt, it was removed in an unpleasant way; he, Marcellus, disgusted at the sight of a French uniform drinking among Spaniards, took down his carabine and fired at the group as carefully as a somewhat restive horse permitted: at this, as if by magic, a score or so of guerillas poured out from Heaven knows where, musket in hand, and delivered a volley; the officer in command of the party fell dead, Jean Jacques here got a broken arm, and his own horse was wounded in two places, and fell from loss of blood a few furlongs from the French camp, to the neighborhood of which the vagabonds pursued them, hallooing and shouting and firing like barbarous banditti as they were.
"However, here I am," concluded Marcellus, "invalided for awhile, my lady, but not expended yet: we will soon dash in among them again for death or glory. Meantime," concluded he, filling both glasses, "let us drink to the eyes of beauty (military salute); and to the renown of France; and double damnation to all her traitors, like that Captain Dujardin; whose neck may the devil twist."
Ere they could drink to this energetic toast, a low wail at the door, like a dying hare's, arrested the glasses on their road, and the rough soldiers stood transfixed, and looked at one another in some dismay. Rose flew to the door with a face full of concern.
Josephine was gone.
Then Rose had the tact and resolution to say a few kind, encouraging words to the soldiers, and bid Jacintha be hospitable to them. This done she darted up-stairs after Josephine; she reached the main corridor just in time to see her creep along it with the air and carriage of a woman of fifty, and enter her own room.
Rose followed softly with wet eyes, and turned the handle gently. But the door was locked.
"I want to speak to you. I am frightened. Oh, do not be alone."
A choking voice answered, "Give me a little while to draw my breath." Rose sank down at the door, and sat close to it, with her head against it, sobbing bitterly. She was hurt at not being let in; such a friend as she had proved herself. But this personal feeling was only a fraction of her grief and anxiety.
A good half hour elapsed ere Josephine, pale and stern as no one had ever seen her till that hour, suddenly opened the door. She started at sight of Rose couched sorrowful on the threshold; her stern look relaxed into tender love and pity; she sank, blushing, on her knees, and took her sister's head quickly to her bosom. "Oh, my little love, have you been here all this time?"—"Oh! oh! oh!" was all the little love could reply. Then the deserted one, still kneeling, took Rose in her lap, and caressed and comforted her, and poured words of gratitude and affection over her like a warm shower.
They rose hand in hand.
Then Rose suddenly seized Josephine, and looked long and anxiously down into her eyes. They flashed fire under the scrutiny. "Yes, it is all over; I could not despise and love. I am dead to him, as he is dead to France."
This was joyful news to Rose. "I hoped it would be so," said she; "but you frightened me. My noble sister, were I ever to lose your esteem, I should die. Oh, how awful yet how beautiful is your scorn. For worlds I would not be that Cam"—Josephine laid her hand imperiously on Rose's mouth. "To mention his name to me will be to insult me; De Beaurepaire I am, and a Frenchwoman. Come, dear, let us go down and comfort our mother."
They went down; and this patient sufferer, and high minded conqueror, of her own accord took up a commonplace book, and read aloud for two mortal hours to her mother and Aubertin. Her voice only wavered twice.
To feel that life is ended; to wish existence, too, had ceased; and so to sit down, an aching hollow, and take a part and sham an interest in twaddle to please others; such are woman's feats. How like nothing at all they look!
A man would rather sit on the buffer of a steam-engine and ride at the Great Redan.
Rose sat at her elbow, a little behind her, and turned the leaves, and on one pretence or other held Josephine's hand nearly all the rest of the day. Its delicate fibres remained tense, like a greyhound's sinews after a race, and the blue veins rose to sight in it, though her voice and eyes were mastered.
So keen was the strife, so matched the antagonists, so hard the victory.
For ire and scorn are mighty. And noble blood in a noble heart is heroic. And Love is a giant.