Edouard, the moment his temper cooled, became very sad. He longed to be friends again with Rose, but did not know how. His own pride held him back, and so did his fear that he had gone too far, and that his offended mistress would not listen to an offer of reconciliation from him. He sat down alone now to all his little meals. No sweet, mellow voices in his ear after the fatigues of the day. It was a dismal change in his life.
At last, one day, he received three lines from Josephine, requesting him to come and speak to her. He went over directly, full of vague hopes. He found her seated pale and languid in a small room on the ground floor.
"What has she been doing to you, dear?" began she kindly.
"Has she not told you, Madame Raynal?"
"No; she is refractory. She will tell me nothing, and that makes me fear she is the one in fault."
"Oh! if she does not accuse me, I am sure I will not accuse her. I dare say I am to blame; it is not her fault that I cannot make her love me."
"But you can. She does."
"Yes; but she loves others better, and she holds me out no hope it will ever be otherwise. On this one point how can I hope for your sympathy; unfortunately for me you are one of my rivals. She told me plainly she never could love me as she loves you."
"And you believed her?"
"I had good reason to believe her."
Josephine smiled sadly. "Dear Edouard," said she, "you must not attach so much importance to every word we say. Does Rose at her age know everything? Is she a prophet? Perhaps she really fancies she will always love her sister as she does now; but you are a man of sense; you ought to smile and let her talk. When you marry her you will take her to your own house; she will only see me now and then; she will have you and your affection always present. Each day some new tie between you and her. You two will share every joy, every sorrow. Your children playing at your feet, and reflecting the features of both parents, will make you one. Your hearts will melt together in that blessed union which raises earth so near to heaven; and then you will wonder you could ever be jealous of poor Josephine, who must never hope—ah, me!"
Edouard, wrapped up in himself, mistook Josephine's emotion at the picture she had drawn of conjugal love. He soothed her, and vowed upon his honor he never would separate Rose from her.
"Madame Raynal," said he, "you are an angel, and I am a fiend. Jealousy must be the meanest of all sentiments. I never will be jealous again, above all, of you, sweet angel. Why, you are my sister as well as hers, and she has a right to love you, for I love you myself."
"You make me very happy when you talk so," sighed Josephine. "Peace is made?"
"Never again to be broken. I will go and ask her pardon. What is the matter now?"
For Jacintha was cackling very loud, and dismissing with ignominy two beggars, male and female.
She was industry personified, and had no sympathy with mendicity. In vain the couple protested, Heaven knows with what truth, that they were not beggars, but mechanics out of work. "March! tramp!" was Jacintha's least word. She added, giving the rein to her imagination, "I'll loose the dog." The man moved away, the woman turned appealingly to Edouard. He and Josephine came towards the group. She had got a sort of large hood, and in that hood she carried an infant on her shoulders. Josephine inspected it. "It looks sickly, poor little thing," said she.
"What can you expect, young lady?" said the woman. "Its mother had to rise and go about when she ought to have been in her bed, and now she has not enough to give it."
"Oh, dear!" cried Josephine. "Jacintha, give them some food and a nice bottle of wine."
"That I will," cried Jacintha, changing her tone with courtier-like alacrity. "I did not see she was nursing."
Josephine put a franc into the infant's hand; the little fingers closed on it with that instinct of appropriation, which is our first and often our last sentiment. Josephine smiled lovingly on the child, and the child seeing that gave a small crow.
"Bless it," said Josephine, and thereupon her lovely head reared itself like a snake's, and then darted down on the child; and the young noble kissed the beggar's brat as if she would eat it.
This won the mother's heart more than even the gifts.
"Blessings on you, my lady!" she cried. "I pray the Lord not to forget this when a woman's trouble comes on you in your turn! It is a small child, mademoiselle, but it is not an unhealthy one. See." Inspection was offered, and eagerly accepted.
Edouard stood looking on at some distance in amazement, mingled with disgust.
"Ugh!" said he, when she rejoined him, "how could you kiss that nasty little brat?"
"Dear Edouard, don't speak so of a poor little innocent. Who would pity them if we women did not? It had lovely eyes."
"It is no compliment when you are affectionate to anybody; you overflow with benevolence on all creation, like the rose which sheds its perfume on the first-comer."
"If he is not going to be jealous of me next," whined Josephine.
She took him to Rose, and she said, "There, whenever good friends quarrel, it is understood they were both in the wrong. Bygones are to be bygones; and when your time comes round to quarrel again, please consult me first, since it is me you will afflict." She left them together, and went and tapped timidly at the doctor's study.
Aubertin received her with none of that reserve she had seen in him. He appeared both surprised and pleased at her visit to his little sanctum. He even showed an emotion Josephine was at a loss to account for. But that wore off during the conversation, and, indeed, gave place to a sort of coldness.
"Dear friend," said she, "I come to consult you about Rose and Edouard." She then told him what had happened, and hinted at Edouard's one fault. The doctor smiled. "It is curious. You have come to draw my attention to a point on which it has been fixed for some days past. I am preparing a cure for the two young fools; a severe remedy, but in their case a sure one."
He then showed her a deed, wherein he had settled sixty thousand francs on Rose and her children. "Edouard," said he, "has a good place. He is active and rising, and with my sixty thousand francs, and a little purse of ten thousand more for furniture and nonsense, they can marry next week, if they like. Yes, marriage is a sovereign medicine for both of these patients. She does not love him quite enough. Cure: marriage. He loves her a little too much. Cure: marriage."
"Can't help it. I did not make men and women. We must take human nature as we find it, and thank God for it on the whole. Have you nothing else to confide to me?"
"Are you sure?"
"No, dear friend. But this is very near my heart," faltered Josephine.
The doctor sighed; then said gently, "They shall be happy: as happy as you wish them."
Meantime, in another room, a reconciliation scene was taking place, and the mutual concessions of two impetuous but generous spirits.
The baroness noticed the change in Josephine's appearance.
She asked Rose what could be the matter.
"Some passing ailment," was the reply.
"Passing? She has been so, on and off, a long time. She makes me very anxious."
Rose made light of it to her mother, but in her own heart she grew more and more anxious day by day. She held secret conferences with Jacintha; that sagacious personage had a plan to wake Josephine from her deathly languor, and even soothe her nerves, and check those pitiable fits of nervous irritation to which she had become subject. Unfortunately, Jacintha's plan was so difficult and so dangerous, that at first even the courageous Rose recoiled from it; but there are dangers that seem to diminish when you look them long in the face.
The whole party was seated in the tapestried room: Jacintha was there, sewing a pair of sheets, at a respectful distance from the gentlefolks, absorbed in her work; but with both ears on full cock.
The doctor, holding his glasses to his eye, had just begun to read out the Moniteur.
The baroness sat close to him, Edouard opposite; and the young ladies each in her corner of a large luxurious sofa, at some little distance.
"'The Austrians left seventy cannon, eight thousand men, and three colors upon the field. Army of the North: General Menard defeated the enemy after a severe engagement, taking thirteen field-pieces and a quantity of ammunition.'"
The baroness made a narrow-minded renmark. "That is always the way with these journals," said she. "Austrians! Prussians! when it's Egypt one wants to hear about."—"No, not a word about Egypt," said the doctor; "but there is a whole column about the Rhine, where Colonel Dujardin is—and Dard. If I was dictator, the first nuisance I would put down is small type." He then spelled out a sanguinary engagement: "eight thousand of the enemy killed. We have some losses to lament. Colonel Dujardin"—
"Only wounded, I hope," said the baroness.
The doctor went coolly on. "At the head of the 24th brigade made a brilliant charge on the enemy's flank, that is described in the general order as having decided the fate of the battle."
"How badly you do read," said the old lady, sharply. "I thought he was gone; instead of that he has covered himself with glory; but it is all our doing, is it not, young ladies? We saved his life."
"We saved it amongst us, madame."
"What is the matter, Rose?" said Edouard.
"Nothing: give me the salts, quick."
She only passed them, as it were, under her own nostrils; then held them to Josephine, who was now observed to be trembling all over. Rose contrived to make it appear that this was mere sympathy on Josephine's part.
"Don't be silly, girls," cried the baroness, cheerfully; "there is nobody killed that we care about."
Dr. Aubertin read the rest to himself.
Edouard fell into a gloomy silence and tortured himself about Camille, and Rose's anxiety and agitation.
By and by the new servant brought in a letter. It was the long-expected one from Egypt.
"Here is something better than salts for you. A long letter, Josephine, and all in his own hand; so he is safe, thank Heaven! I was beginning to be uneasy again. You frightened me for that poor Camille: but this is worth a dozen Camilles; this is my son; I would give my old life for him."—"My dear Mother—('Bless him!'), my dear wife, and my dear sister—('Well! you sit there like two rocks!')—We have just gained a battle—fifty colors. ('What do you think of that?') All the enemy's baggage and ammunition are in our hands. ('This is something like a battle, this one.') Also the Pasha of Natolie. ('Ah! the Pasha of Natolie; an important personage, no doubt, though I never had the honor of hearing of him. Do you hear?—you on the sofa. My son has captured the Pasha of Natolie. He is as brave as Caesar.') But this success is not one of those that lead to important results ('Never mind, a victory is a victory'), and I should not wonder if Bonaparte was to dash home any day. If so, I shall go with him, and perhaps spend a whole day with you, on my way to the Rhine."
At this prospect a ghastly look passed quick as lightning between Rose and Josephine.
The baroness beckoned Josephine to come close to her, and read her what followed in a lower tone of voice.
"Tell my wife I love her more and more every day. I don't expect as much from her, but she will make me very happy if she can make shift to like me as well as her family do."—"No danger! What husband deserves to be loved as he does? I long for his return, that his wife, his mother, and his sister may all combine to teach this poor soldier what happiness means. We owe him everything, Josephine, and if we did not love him, and make him happy, we should be monsters; now should we not?"
Josephine stammered an assent.
"NOW you may read his letter: Jacintha and all," said the baroness graciously.
The letter circulated. Meantime, the baroness conversed with Aubertin in quite an undertone.
"My friend, look at Josephine. That girl is ill, or else she is going to be ill."
"Neither the one nor the other, madame," said Aubertin, looking her coolly in the face.
"But I say she is. Is a doctor's eye keener than a mother's?"
"Considerably," replied the doctor with cool and enviable effrontery.
The baroness rose. "Now, children, for our evening walk. We shall enjoy it now."
"I trust you may: but for all that I must forbid the evening air to one of the party—to Madame Raynal."
The baroness came to him and whispered, "That is right. Thank you. See what is the matter with her, and tell me." And she carried off the rest of the party.
At the same time Jacintha asked permission to pass the rest of the evening with her relations in the village. But why that swift, quivering glance of intelligence between Jacintha and Rose de Beaurepaire when the baroness said, "Yes, certainly"?
Time will show.
Josephine and the doctor were left alone. Now Josephine had noticed the old people whisper and her mother glance her way, and the whole woman was on her guard. She assumed a languid complacency, and by way of shield, if necessary, took some work, and bent her eyes and apparently her attention on it.
The doctor was silent and ill at ease.
She saw he had something weighty on his mind. "The air would have done me no harm," said she.
"Neither will a few words with me."
"Oh, no, dear friend. Only I think I should have liked a little walk this evening."
"Josephine," said the doctor quietly, "when you were a child I saved your life."
"I have often heard my mother speak of it. I was choked by the croup, and you had the courage to lance my windpipe."
"Had I?" said the doctor, with a smile. He added gravely, "It seems then that to be cruel is sometimes kindness. It is the nature of men to love those whose life they save."
"And they love you."
"Well, our affection is not perfect. I don't know which is most to blame, but after all these years I have failed to inspire you with confidence." The doctor's voice was sad, and Josephine's bosom panted.
"Pray do not say so," she cried. "I would trust you with my life."
"But not with your secret."
"My secret! What secret? I have no secrets."
"Josephine, you have now for full twelve months suffered in body and mind, yet you have never come to me for counsel, for comfort, for an old man's experience and advice, nor even for medical aid."
"But, dear friend, I assure you"—
"We DO NOT deceive our friend. We CANNOT deceive our doctor."
Josephine trembled, but defended herself after the manner of her sex. "Dear doctor," said she, "I love you all the better for this. Your regard for me has for once blinded your science. I am not so robust as you have known me, but there is nothing serious the matter with me. Let us talk of something else. Besides, it is not interesting to talk about one's self."
"Very well; since there is nothing serious or interesting in your case, we will talk about something that is both serious and interesting."
"With all my heart;" and she smiled with a sense of relief.
But the doctor leaned over the table to her, and said in a cautious and most emphatic whisper, "We will talk about YOUR CHILD."
The work dropped from Josephine's hands: she turned her face wildly on Aubertin, and faltered out, "M—my child?"
"My words are plain," replied he gravely. "YOUR CHILD."
When the doctor repeated these words, when Josephine looking in his face saw he spoke from knowledge, however acquired, and not from guess, she glided down slowly off the sofa and clasped his knees as he stood before her, and hid her face in an agony of shame and terror on his knees.
"Forgive me," she sobbed. "Pray do not expose me! Do not destroy me."
"Unhappy young lady," said he, "did you think you had deceived me, or that you are fit to deceive any but the blind? Your face, your anguish after Colonel Dujardin's departure, your languor, and then your sudden robustness, your appetite, your caprices, your strange sojourn at Frejus, your changed looks and loss of health on your return! Josephine, your old friend has passed many an hour thinking of you, divining your folly, following your trouble step by step. Yet you never invited him to aid you."
Josephine faltered out a lame excuse. If she had revered him less she could have borne to confess to him. She added it would be a relief to her to confide in him.
"Then tell me all," said he.
She consented almost eagerly, and told him—nearly all. The old man was deeply affected. He murmured in a broken voice, "Your story is the story of your sex, self-sacrifice, first to your mother, then to Camille, now to your husband."
"And he is well worthy of any sacrifice I can make," said Josephine. "But oh, how hard it is to live!"
"I hope to make it less hard to you ere long," said the doctor quietly. He then congratulated himself on having forced Josephine to confide in him. "For," said he, "you never needed an experienced friend more than at this moment. Your mother will not always be so blind as of late. Edouard is suspicious. Jacintha is a shrewd young woman, and very inquisitive."
Josephine was not at the end of her concealments: she was ashamed to let him know she had made a confidant of Jacintha and not of him. She held her peace.
"Then," continued Aubertin, "there is the terrible chance of Raynal's return. But ere I take on me to advise you, what are your own plans?"
"I don't know," said Josephine helplessly.
"You—don't—know!" cried the doctor, looking at her in utter amazement.
"It is the answer of a mad woman, is it not? Doctor, I am little better. My foot has slipped on the edge of a precipice. I close my eyes, and let myself glide down it. What will become of me?"
"All shall be well," said Aubertin, "provided you do not still love that man."
Josephine did not immediately reply: her thoughts turned inwards. The good doctor was proceeding to congratulate her on being cured of a fatal passion, when she stopped him with wonder in her face. "Not love him! How can I help loving him? I was his betrothed. I wronged him in my thoughts. War, prison, anguish, could not kill him; he loved me so. He struggled bleeding to my feet; and could I let him die, after all? Could I be crueller than prison, and torture, and despair?"
The doctor sighed deeply; but, arming himself with the necessary resolution, he sternly replied, "A woman of your name cannot vacillate between love and honor; such vacillations have but one end. I will not let you drift a moral wreck between passion and virtue; and that is what it will come to if you hesitate now."
"Hesitate! Who can say I have hesitated where my honor was concerned? You can read our bodies then, but not our hearts. What! you see me so pale, forlorn, and dead, and that does not tell you I have bid Camille farewell forever? That we might be safer still I have not even told him he is a father: was ever woman so cruel as I am? I have written him but one letter, and in that I must deceive him. I told him I thought I might one day be happy, if I could hear that he did not give way to despair. I told him we must never meet again in this world. So now come what will: show me my duty and I will do it. This endless deceit burns my heart. Shall I tell my husband? It will be but one pang more, one blush more for me. But my mother!" and, thus appealed to, Dr. Aubertin felt, for the first time, all the difficulty of the situation he had undertaken to cure. He hesitated, he was embarrassed.
"Ah," said Josephine, "you see." Then, after a short silence, she said despairingly, "This is my only hope: that poor Raynal will be long absent, and that ere he returns mamma will lie safe from sorrow and shame in the little chapel. Doctor, when a woman of my age forms such wishes as these, I think you might pity her, and forgive her ill-treatment of you, for she cannot be very happy. Ah me! ah me! ah me!"
"Courage, poor soul! All is now in my hands, and I will save you," said the doctor, his voice trembling in spite of him. "Guilt lies in the intention. A more innocent woman than you does not breathe. Two courses lay open to you: to leave this house with Camille Dujardin, or to dismiss him, and live for your hard duty till it shall please Heaven to make that duty easy (no middle course was tenable for a day); of these two paths you chose the right one, and, having chosen, I really think you are not called on to reveal your misfortune, and make those unhappy to whose happiness you have sacrificed your own for years to come."
"Forever," said Josephine quietly.
"The young use that word lightly. The old have almost ceased to use it. They have seen how few earthly things can conquer time."
He resumed, "You think only of others, Josephine, but I shall think of you as well. I shall not allow your life to be wasted in a needless struggle against nature." Then turning to Rose, who had glided into the room, and stood amazed, "Her griefs were as many before her child was born, yet her health stood firm. Why? because nature was on her side. Now she is sinking into the grave. Why? because she is defying nature. Nature intended her to be pressing her child to her bosom day and night; instead of that, a peasant woman at Frejus nurses the child, and the mother pines at Beaurepaire."
At this, Josephine leaned her face on her hands on the doctor's shoulder. In this attitude she murmured to him, "I have never seen him since I left Frejus." Dr. Aubertin sighed for her. Emboldened by this, she announced her intention of going to Frejus the very next day to see her little Henri. But to this Dr. Aubertin demurred. "What, another journey to Frejus?" said he, "when the first has already roused Edouard's suspicions; I can never consent to that."
Then Josephine surprised them both. She dropped her coaxing voice and pecked the doctor like an irritated pigeon. "Take care," said she, "don't be too cruel to me. You see I am obedient, resigned. I have given up all I lived for: but if I am never to have my little boy's arms round me to console me, then—why torment me any longer? Why not say to me, 'Josephine, you have offended Heaven; pray for pardon, and die'?"
Then the doctor was angry in his turn. "Oh, go then," said he, "go to Frejus; you will have Edouard Riviere for a companion this time. Your first visit roused his suspicions. So before you go tell your mother all; for since she is sure to find it out, she had better hear it from you than from another."
"Doctor, have pity on me," said Josephine.
"You have no heart," said Rose. "She shall see him though, in spite of you."
"Oh, yes! he has a heart," said Josephine: "he is my best friend. He will let me see my boy."
All this, and the tearful eyes and coaxing yet trembling voice, was hard to resist. But Aubertin saw clearly, and stood firm. He put his handkerchief to his eyes a moment: then took the pining young mother's hand. "And, do you think," said he, "I do not pity you and love your boy? Ah! he will never want a father whilst I live; and from this moment he is under my care. I will go to see him; I will bring you news, and all in good time; I will place him where you shall visit him without imprudence; but, for the present, trust a wiser head than yours or Rose's; and give me your sacred promise not to go to Frejus."
Weighed down by his good-sense and kindness, Josephine resisted no longer in words. She just lifted her hands in despair and began to cry. It was so piteous, Aubertin was ready to yield in turn, and consent to any imprudence, when he met with an unexpected ally.
"Promise," said Rose, doggedly.
Josephine looked at her calmly through her tears.
"Promise, dear," repeated Rose, and this time with an intonation so fine that it attracted Josephine's notice, but not the doctor's. It was followed by a glance equally subtle.
"I promise," said Josephine, with her eye fixed inquiringly on her sister.
For once she could not make the telegraph out: but she could see it was playing, and that was enough. She did what Rose bid her; she promised not to go to Frejus without leave.
Finding her so submissive all of a sudden, he went on to suggest that she must not go kissing every child she saw. "Edouard tells me he saw you kissing a beggar's brat. The young rogue was going to quiz you about it at the dinner-table; luckily, he told me his intention, and I would not let him. I said the baroness would be annoyed with you for descending from your dignity—and exposing a noble family to fleas—hush! here he is."
"Tiresome!" muttered Rose, "just when"—
Edouard came forward with a half-vexed face.
However, he turned it off into play. "What have you been saying to her, monsieur, to interest her so? Give me a leaf out of your book. I need it."
The doctor was taken aback for a moment, but at last he said slyly, "I have been proposing to her to name the day. She says she must consult you before she decides that."
"Oh, you wicked doctor!—and consult HIM of all people!"
"So be off, both of you, and don't reappear before me till it is settled."
Edouard's eyes sparkled. Rose went out with a face as red as fire.
It was a balmy evening. Edouard was to leave them for a week the next day. They were alone: Rose was determined he should go away quite happy. Everything was in Edouard's favor: he pleaded his cause warmly: she listened tenderly: this happy evening her piquancy and archness seemed to dissolve into tenderness as she and Edouard walked hand in hand under the moon: a tenderness all the more heavenly to her devoted lover, that she was not one of those angels who cloy a man by invariable sweetness.
For a little while she forgot everything but her companion. In that soft hour he won her to name the day, after her fashion.
"Josephine goes to Paris with the doctor in about three weeks," murmured she.
"And you will stay behind, all alone?"
"Alone? that shall depend on you, monsieur."
On this Edouard caught her for the first time in his arms.
She made a faint resistance.
"Seal me that promise, sweet one!"
He pressed a delicious first kiss upon two velvet lips that in their innocence scarcely shunned the sweet attack.
For all that, the bond was no sooner sealed after this fashion, than the lady's cheek began to burn.
"Suppose we go in NOW?" said she, dryly.
"Ah, not yet."
"It is late, dear Edouard."
And with these words something returned to her mind with its full force: something that Edouard had actually made her forget. She wanted to get rid of him now.
"Edouard," said she, "can you get up early in the morning? If you can, meet me here to-morrow before any of them are up; then we can talk without interruption."
Edouard was delighted.
"Sooner if you like. Mamma bade me come and read to her in her room to-night. She will be waiting for me. Is it not tiresome?"
"Yes, it is."
"Well, we must not mind that, dear; in three weeks' time we are to have too much of one another, you know, instead of too little."
"Too much! I shall never have enough of you. I shall hate the night which will rob me of the sight of you for so many hours in the twenty-four."
"If you can't see me, perhaps you may hear me; my tongue runs by night as well as by day."
"Well, that is a comfort," said Edouard, gravely. "Yes, little quizzer, I would rather hear you scold than an angel sing. Judge, then, what music it is when you say you love me!"
"I love you, Edouard."
Edouard kissed her hand warmly, and then looked irresolutely at her face.
"No, no!" said she, laughing and blushing. "How rude you are. Next time we meet."
"That is a bargain. But I won't go till you say you love me again.
"Edouard, don't be silly. I am ashamed of saying the same thing so often—I won't say it any more. What is the use? You know I love you. There, I HAVE said it: how stupid!"
"Adieu, then, my wife that is to be."
"Adieu! dear Edouard."
"My hus—go on—my hus—"
"My huswife that shall be."
Then they walked very slowly towards the house, and once more Rose left quizzing, and was all tenderness.
"Will you not come in, and bid them 'good-night'?"
"No, my own; I am in heaven. Common faces—common voices would bring me down to earth. Let me be alone;—your sweet words ringing in my ear. I will dilute you with nothing meaner than the stars. See how bright they shine in heaven; but not so bright as you shine in my heart."
"Dear Edouard, you flatter me, you spoil me. Alas! why am I not more worthy of your love?"
"More worthy! How can that be?"
"But I will atone for all. I will make you a better—(here she substituted a full stop for a substantive)—than you expect. You will see else."
She lingered at the door: a proof that if Edouard, at that particular moment, had seized another kiss, there would have been no very violent opposition or offence.
But he was not so impudent as some. He had been told to wait till the next meeting for that. He prayed Heaven to bless her, and so the affianced lovers parted for the night.
It was about nine o'clock. Edouard, instead of returning to his lodgings, started down towards the town, to conclude a bargain with the innkeeper for an English mare he was in treaty for. He wanted her for to-morrow's work; so that decided him to make the purchase. In purchases, as in other matters, a feather turns the balanced scale. He sauntered leisurely down. It was a very clear night; the full moon and the stars shining silvery and vivid. Edouard's heart swelled with joy. He was loved after all, deeply loved; and in three short weeks he was actually to be Rose's husband: her lord and master. How like a heavenly dream it all seemed—the first hopeless courtship, and now the wedding fixed! But it was no dream; he felt her soft words still murmur music at his heart, and the shadow of her velvet lips slept upon his own.
He had strolled about a league when he heard the ring of a horse's hoofs coming towards him, accompanied by a clanking noise; it came nearer and nearer, till it reached a hill that lay a little ahead of Edouard; then the sounds ceased; the cavalier was walking his horse up the hill.
Presently, as if they had started from the earth, up popped between Edouard and the sky, first a cocked hat that seemed in that light to be cut with a razor out of flint; then the wearer, phosphorescent here and there; so brightly the keen moonlight played on his epaulets and steel scabbard. A step or two nearer, and Edouard gave a great shout; it was Colonel Raynal.
After the first warm greeting, and questions and answers, Raynal told him he was on his way to the Rhine with despatches.
"To the Rhine?"
"I am allowed six days to get there. I made a calculation, and found I could give Beaurepaire half a day. I shall have to make up for it by hard riding. You know me; always in a hurry. It is Bonaparte's fault this time. He is always in a hurry too."
"Why, colonel," said Edouard, "let us make haste then. Mind they go early to rest at the chateau."
"But you are not coming my way, youngster?"
"Not coming your way? Yes, but I am. Yours is a face I don't see every day, colonel; besides I would not miss THEIR faces, especially the baroness's and Madame Raynal's, at sight of you; and, besides,"—and the young gentleman chuckled to himself, and thought of Rose's words, "the next time we meet;" well, this will be the next time. "May I jump up behind?"
Colonel Raynal nodded assent. Edouard took a run, and lighted like a monkey on the horse's crupper. He pranced and kicked at this unexpected addition; but the spur being promptly applied to his flanks, he bounded off with a snort that betrayed more astonishment than satisfaction, and away they cantered to Beaurepaire, without drawing rein.
"There," said Edouard, "I was afraid they would be gone to bed; and they are. The very house seems asleep—fancy—at half-past ten."
"That is a pity," said Raynal, "for this chateau is the stronghold of etiquette. They will be two hours dressing before they will come out and shake hands. I must put my horse into the stable. Go you and give the alarm."
"I will, colonel. Stop, first let me see whether none of them are up, after all."
And Edouard walked round the chateau, and soon discovered a light at one window, the window of the tapestried room. Running round the other way he came slap upon another light: this one was nearer the ground. A narrow but massive door, which he had always seen not only locked but screwed up, was wide open; and through the aperture the light of a candle streamed out and met the moonlight streaming in.
"Hallo!" cried Edouard.
He stopped, turned, and looked in.
"Hallo!" he cried again much louder.
A young woman was sleeping with her feet in the silvery moonlight, and her head in the orange-colored blaze of a flat candle, which rested on the next step above of a fine stone staircase, whose existence was now first revealed to the inquisitive Edouard.
Coming plump upon all this so unexpectedly, he quite started.
He touched her on the shoulder to wake her. No. Jacintha was sleeping as only tired domestics can sleep. He might have taken the candle and burnt her gown off her back. She had found a step that fitted into the small of her back, and another that supported her head, and there she was fast as a door.
At this moment Raynal's voice was heard calling him.
"There is a light in that bedroom."
"It is not a bedroom, colonel; it is our sitting-room now. We shall find them all there, or at least the young ladies; and perhaps the doctor. The baroness goes to bed early. Meantime I can show you one of our dramatis personae, and an important one too. She rules the roost."
He took him mysteriously and showed him Jacintha.
Moonlight by itself seems white, and candlelight by itself seems yellow; but when the two come into close contrast at night, candle turns a reddish flame, and moonlight a bluish gleam.
So Jacintha, with her shoes in this celestial sheen, and her face in that demoniacal glare, was enough to knock the gazer's eye out.
"Make a good sentinel—this one," said Raynal—"an outlying picket for instance, on rough ground, in front of the enemy's riflemen."
"Ha! ha! colonel! Let us see where this staircase leads. I have an idea it will prove a short cut."
"To the saloon, or somewhere, or else to some of Jacintha's haunts. Serve her right for going to sleep at the mouth of her den."
"Forward then—no, halt! Suppose it leads to the bedrooms? Mind this is a thundering place for ceremony. We shall get drummed out of the barracks if we don't mind our etiquette."
At this they hesitated; and Edouard himself thought, on the whole, it would be better to go and hammer at the front door.
Now while they hesitated, a soft delicious harmony of female voices suddenly rose, and seemed to come and run round the walls. The men looked at one another in astonishment; for the effect was magical. The staircase being enclosed on all sides with stone walls and floored with stone, they were like flies inside a violoncello; the voices rang above, below, and on every side of the vibrating walls. In some epochs spirits as hardy as Raynal's, and wits as quick as Riviere's, would have fled then and there to the nearest public, and told over cups how they had heard the dames of Beaurepaire, long since dead, holding their revel, and the conscious old devil's nest of a chateau quivering to the ghostly strains.
But this was an incredulous age. They listened, and listened, and decided the sounds came from up-stairs.
"Let us mount, and surprise these singing witches," said Edouard.
"Surprise them! what for? It is not the enemy—for once. What is the good of surprising our friends?"
Storming parties and surprises were no novelty and therefore no treat to Raynal.
"It will be so delightful to see their faces at first sight of you. O colonel, for my sake! Don't spoil it by going tamely in at the front door, after coming at night from Egypt for half an hour."
Raynal grumbled something about its being a childish trick; but to please Edouard consented at last; only stipulated for a light: "or else," said he, "we shall surprise ourselves instead with a broken neck, going over ground we don't know to surprise the natives—our skirmishers got nicked that way now and then in Egypt."
"Yes, colonel, I will go first with Jacintha's candle." Edouard mounted the stairs on tiptoe. Raynal followed. The solid stone steps did not prate. The men had mounted a considerable way, when puff a blast of wind came through a hole, and out went Edouard's candle. He turned sharply round to Raynal. "Peste!" said he in a vicious whisper. But the other laid his hand on his shoulder and whispered, "Look to the front." He looked, and, his own candle being out, saw a glimmer on ahead. He crept towards it. It was a taper shooting a feeble light across a small aperture. They caught a glimpse of what seemed to be a small apartment. Yet Edouard recognized the carpet of the tapestried room—which was a very large room. Creeping a yard nearer, he discovered that it was the tapestried room, and that what had seemed the further wall was only the screen, behind which were lights, and two women singing a duet.
He whispered to Raynal, "It is the tapestried room."
"Is it a sitting-room?" whispered Raynal.
"Yes! yes! Mind and not knock your foot against the wood."
And Raynal went softly up and put his foot quietly through the aperture, which he now saw was made by a panel drawn back close to the ground; and stood in the tapestried chamber. The carpet was thick; the voices favored the stealthy advance; the floor of the old house was like a rock; and Edouard put his face through the aperture, glowing all over with anticipation of the little scream of joy that would welcome his friend dropping in so nice and suddenly from Egypt.
The feeling was rendered still more piquant by a sharp curiosity that had been growing on him for some minutes past. For why was this passage opened to-night?—he had never seen it opened before. And why was Jacintha lying sentinel at the foot of the stairs?
But this was not all. Now that they were in the room both men became conscious of another sound besides the ladies' voices—a very peculiar sound. It also came from behind the screen. They both heard it, and showed, by the puzzled looks they cast at one another, that neither could make out what on earth it was. It consisted of a succession of little rustles, followed by little thumps on the floor.
But what was curious, too, this rustle, thump—rustle, thump—fell exactly into the time of the music; so that, clearly, either the rustle thump was being played to the tune, or the tune sung to the rustle thump.
This last touch of mystery inflamed Edouard's impatience beyond bearing: he pointed eagerly and merrily to the corner of the screen. Raynal obeyed, and stepped very slowly and cautiously towards it.
Rustle, thump! rustle, thump! rustle, thump! with the rhythm of harmonious voices.
Edouard got his head and foot into the room without taking his eye off Raynal.
Rustle, thump! rustle, thump! rustle, thump!
Raynal was now at the screen, and quietly put his head round it, and his hand upon it.
Edouard was bursting with expectation.
No result. What is this? Don't they see him? Why does he not speak to them? He seems transfixed.
Rustle, thump! rustle, thump; accompanied now for a few notes by one voice only, Rose's.
Suddenly there burst a shriek from Josephine, so loud, so fearful, that it made even Raynal stagger back a step, the screen in his hand.
Then another scream of terror and anguish from Rose. Then a fainter cry, and the heavy helpless fall of a human body.
Raynal sprang forward whirling the screen to the earth in terrible agitation, and Edouard bounded over it as it fell at his feet. He did not take a second step. The scene that caught his eye stupefied and paralyzed him in full career, and froze him to the spot with amazement and strange misgivings.