Chapter 5. V. TWO MEETINGS
One of Napoleon’s orderly staff-officers, who shall be known in this history only as the General or the Marquis, had come to spend the spring at Versailles. He made a large fortune under the Restoration; and as his place at Court would not allow him to go very far from Paris, he had taken a country house between the church and the barrier of Montreuil, on the road that leads to the Avenue de Saint-Cloud.
The house had been built originally as a retreat for the short-lived loves of some grand seigneur. The grounds were very large; the gardens on either side extending from the first houses of Montreuil to the thatched cottages near the barrier, so that the owner could enjoy all the pleasures of solitude with the city almost at his gates. By an odd piece of contradiction, the whole front of the house itself, with the principal entrance, gave directly upon the street. Perhaps in time past it was a tolerably lonely road, and indeed this theory looks all the more probable when one comes to think of it; for not so very far away, on this same road, Louis Quinze built a delicious summer villa for Mlle. de Romans, and the curious in such things will discover that the wayside casinos are adorned in a style that recalls traditions of the ingenious taste displayed in debauchery by our ancestors who, with all the license paid to their charge, sought to invest it with secrecy and mystery.
One winter evening the family were by themselves in the lonely house. The servants had received permission to go to Versailles to celebrate the wedding of one of their number. It was Christmas time, and the holiday makers, presuming upon the double festival, did not scruple to outstay their leave of absence; yet, as the General was well known to be a man of his word, the culprits felt some twinges of conscience as they danced on after the hour of return. The clocks struck eleven, and still there was no sign of the servants.
A deep silence prevailed over the country-side, broken only by the sound of the northeast wind whistling through the black branches, wailing about the house, dying in gusts along the corridors. The hard frost had purified the air, and held the earth in its grip; the roads gave back every sound with the hard metallic ring which always strikes us with a new surprise; the heavy footsteps of some belated reveler, or a cab returning to Paris, could be heard for a long distance with unwonted distinctness. Out in the courtyard a few dead leaves set a-dancing by some eddying gust found a voice for the night which fain had been silent. It was, in fact, one of those sharp, frosty evenings that wring barren expressions of pity from our selfish ease for wayfarers and the poor, and fills us with a luxurious sense of the comfort of the fireside.
But the family party in the salon at that hour gave not a thought to absent servants nor houseless folk, nor to the gracious charm with which a winter evening sparkles. No one played the philosopher out of season. Secure in the protection of an old soldier, women and children gave themselves up to the joys of home life, so delicious when there is no restraint upon feeling; and talk and play and glances are bright with frankness and affection.
The General sat, or more properly speaking, lay buried, in the depths of a huge, high-back armchair by the hearth. The heaped-up fire burned scorching clear with the excessive cold of the night. The good father leaned his head slightly to one side against the back of the chair, in the indolence of perfect serenity and a glow of happiness. The languid, half-sleepy droop of his outstretched arms seemed to complete his expression of placid content. He was watching his youngest, a boy of five or thereabouts, who, half clad as he was, declined to allow his mother to undress him. The little one fled from the night-gown and cap with which he was threatened now and again, and stoutly declined to part with his embroidered collar, laughing when his mother called to him, for he saw that she too was laughing at this declaration of infant independence. The next step was to go back to a game of romps with his sister. She was as much a child as he, but more mischievous; and she was older by two years, and could speak distinctly already, whereas his inarticulate words and confused ideas were a puzzle even to his parents. Little Moina’s playfulness, somewhat coquettish already, provoked inextinguishable laughter, explosions of merriment which went off like fireworks for no apparent cause. As they tumbled about before the fire, unconcernedly displaying little plump bodies and delicate white contours, as the dark and golden curls mingled in a collision of rosy cheeks dimpled with childish glee, a father surely, a mother most certainly, must have understood those little souls, and seen the character and power of passion already developed for their eyes. As the cherubs frolicked about, struggling, rolling, and tumbling without fear of hurt on the soft carpet, its flowers looked pale beside the glowing white and red of their cheeks and the brilliant color of their shining eyes.
On the sofa by the fire, opposite the great armchair, the children’s mother sat among a heap of scattered garments, with a little scarlet shoe in her hand. She seemed to have given herself up completely to the enjoyment of the moment; wavering discipline had relaxed into a sweet smile engraved upon her lips. At the age of six-and-thirty, or thereabouts, she was a beautiful woman still, by reason of the rare perfection of the outlines of her face, and at this moment light and warmth and happiness filled it with preternatural brightness.
Again and again her eyes wandered from her children, and their tender gaze was turned upon her husband’s grave face; and now and again the eyes of husband and wife met with a silent exchange of happiness and thoughts from some inner depth.
The General’s face was deeply bronzed, a stray lock of gray hair scored shadows on his forehead. The reckless courage of the battlefield could be read in the lines carved in his hollow cheeks, and gleams of rugged strength in the blue eyes; clearly the bit of red ribbon flaunting at his button-hole had been paid for by hardship and toil. An inexpressible kindliness and frankness shone out of the strong, resolute face which reflected his children’s merriment; the gray-haired captain found it not so very hard to become a child again. Is there not always a little love of children in the heart of a soldier who has seen enough of the seamy side of life to know something of the piteous limitations of strength and the privileges of weakness?
At a round table rather further away, in a circle of bright lamplight that dimmed the feebler illumination of the wax candles on the chimney-piece, sat a boy of thirteen, rapidly turning the pages of a thick volume which he was reading, undisturbed by the shouts of the children. There was a boy’s curiosity in his face. From his lyceens uniform he was evidently a schoolboy, and the book he was reading was the Arabian Nights. Small wonder that he was deeply absorbed. He sat perfectly still in a meditative attitude, with his elbow on the table, and his hand propping his head—the white fingers contrasting strongly with the brown hair into which they were thrust. As he sat, with the light turned full upon his face, and the rest of his body in shadow, he looked like one of Raphael’s dark portraits of himself—a bent head and intent eyes filled with visions of the future.
Between the table and the Marquise a tall, beautiful girl sat at her tapestry frame; sometimes she drew back from her work, sometimes she bent over it, and her hair, picturesque in its ebony smoothness and darkness, caught the light of the lamp. Helene was a picture in herself. In her beauty there was a rare distinctive character of power and refinement. Though her hair was gathered up and drawn back from her face, so as to trace a clearly marked line about her head, so thick and abundant was it, so recalcitrant to the comb, that it sprang back in curl-tendrils to the nape of her neck. The bountiful line of eyebrows was evenly marked out in dark contrasting outline upon her pure forehead. On her upper lip, beneath the Grecian nose with its sensitively perfect curve of nostril, there lay a faint, swarthy shadow, the sign-manual of courage; but the enchanting roundness of contour, the frankly innocent expression of her other features, the transparence of the delicate carnations, the voluptuous softness of the lips, the flawless oval of the outline of the face, and with these, and more than all these, the saintlike expression in the girlish eyes, gave to her vigorous loveliness the distinctive touch of feminine grace, that enchanting modesty which we look for in these angels of peace and love. Yet there was no suggestion of fragility about her; and, surely, with so grand a woman’s frame, so attractive a face, she must possess a corresponding warmth of heart and strength of soul.
She was as silent as her schoolboy brother. Seemingly a prey to the fateful maiden meditations which baffle a father’s penetration and even a mother’s sagacity, it was impossible to be certain whether it was the lamplight that cast those shadows that flitted over her face like thin clouds over a bright sky, or whether they were passing shades of secret and painful thoughts.
Husband and wife had quite forgotten the two older children at that moment, though now and again the General’s questioning glance traveled to that second mute picture; a larger growth, a gracious realization, as it were, of the hopes embodied in the baby forms rioting in the foreground. Their faces made up a kind of living poem, illustrating life’s various phases. The luxurious background of the salon, the different attitudes, the strong contrasts of coloring in the faces, differing with the character of differing ages, the modeling of the forms brought into high relief by the light—altogether it was a page of human life, richly illuminated beyond the art of painter, sculptor, or poet. Silence, solitude, night and winter lent a final touch of majesty to complete the simplicity and sublimity of this exquisite effect of nature’s contriving. Married life is full of these sacred hours, which perhaps owe their indefinable charm to some vague memory of a better world. A divine radiance surely shines upon them, the destined compensation for some portion of earth’s sorrows, the solace which enables man to accept life. We seem to behold a vision of an enchanted universe, the great conception of its system widens out before our eyes, and social life pleads for its laws by bidding us look to the future.
Yet in spite of the tender glances that Helene gave Abel and Moina after a fresh outburst of merriment; in spite of the look of gladness in her transparent face whenever she stole a glance at her father, a deep melancholy pervaded her gestures, her attitude, and more than all, her eyes veiled by their long lashes. Those white, strong hands, through which the light passed, tinting them with a diaphanous, almost fluid red—those hands were trembling. Once only did the eyes of the mother and daughter clash without shrinking, and the two women read each other’s thoughts in a look, cold, wan, and respectful on Helene’s part, sombre and threatening on her mother’s. At once Helene’s eyes were lowered to her work, she plied her needle swiftly, and it was long before she raised her head, bowed as it seemed by a weight of thought too heavy to bear. Was the Marquise over harsh with this one of her children? Did she think this harshness needful? Was she jealous of Helene’s beauty?—She might still hope to rival Helene, but only by the magic arts of the toilette. Or again, had her daughter, like many a girl who reaches the clairvoyant age, read the secrets which this wife (to all appearance so religiously faithful in the fulfilment of her duties) believed to be buried in her own heart as deeply as in a grave?
Helene had reached an age when purity of soul inclines to pass over-rigid judgments. A certain order of mind is apt to exaggerate transgression into crime; imagination reacts upon conscience, and a young girl is a hard judge because she magnifies the seriousness of the offence. Helene seemed to think herself worthy of no one. Perhaps there was a secret in her past life, perhaps something had happened, unintelligible to her at the time, but with gradually developing significance for a mind grown susceptible to religious influences; something which lately seemed to have degraded her, as it were, in her own eyes, and according to her own romantic standard. This change in her demeanor dated from the day of reading Schiller’s noble tragedy of Wilhelm Tell in a new series of translations. Her mother scolded her for letting the book fall, and then remarked to herself that the passage which had so worked on Helene’s feelings was the scene in which Wilhelm Tell, who spilt the blood of a tyrant to save a nation, fraternizes in some sort with John the Parricide. Helene had grown humble, dutiful, and self-contained; she no longer cared for gaiety. Never had she made so much of her father, especially when the Marquise was not by to watch her girlish caresses. And yet, if Helene’s affection for her mother had cooled at all, the change in her manner was so slight as to be almost imperceptible; so slight that the General could not have noticed it, jealous though he might be of the harmony of home. No masculine insight could have sounded the depths of those two feminine natures; the one was young and generous, the other sensitive and proud; the first had a wealth of indulgence in her nature, the second was full of craft and love. If the Marquise made her daughter’s life a burden to her by a woman’s subtle tyranny, it was a tyranny invisible to all but the victim; and for the rest, these conjectures only called forth after the event must remain conjectures. Until this night no accusing flash of light had escaped either of them, but an ominous mystery was too surely growing up between them, a mystery known only to themselves and God.
“Come, Abel,” called the Marquise, seizing on her opportunity when the children were tired of play and still for a moment. “Come, come, child; you must be put to bed—”
And with a glance that must be obeyed, she caught him up and took him on her knee.
“What!” exclaimed the General. “Half-past ten o’clock, and not one of the servants has come back! The rascals!—Gustave,” he added, turning to his son, “I allowed you to read that book only on the condition that you should put it away at ten o’clock. You ought to have shut up the book at the proper time and gone to bed, as you promised. If you mean to make your mark in the world, you must keep your word; let it be a second religion to you, and a point of honor. Fox, one of the greatest English orators, was remarkable, above all things, for the beauty of his character, and the very first of his qualities was the scrupulous faithfulness with which he kept his engagements. When he was a child, his father (an Englishman of the old school) gave him a pretty strong lesson which he never forgot. Like most rich Englishmen, Fox’s father had a country house and a considerable park about it. Now, in the park there was an old summer-house, and orders had been given that this summer-house was to be pulled down and put up somewhere else where there was a finer view. Fox was just about your age, and had come home for the holidays. Boys are fond of seeing things pulled to pieces, so young Fox asked to stay on at home for a few days longer to see the old summer-house taken down; but his father said that he must go back to school on the proper day, so there was anger between father and son. Fox’s mother (like all mammas) took the boy’s part. Then the father solemnly promised that the summer-house should stay where it was till the next holidays.
“So Fox went back to school; and his father, thinking that lessons would soon drive the whole thing out of the boy’s mind, had the summer-house pulled down and put up in the new position. But as it happened, the persistent youngster thought of nothing but that summer-house; and as soon as he came home again, his first care was to go out to look at the old building, and he came in to breakfast looking quite doleful, and said to his father, ‘You have broken your promise.’ The old English gentleman said with confusion full of dignity, ‘That is true, my boy; but I will make amends. A man ought to think of keeping his word before he thinks of his fortune; for by keeping his word he will gain fortune, while all the fortunes in the world will not efface the stain left on your conscience by a breach of faith.’ Then he gave orders that the summer-house should be put up again in the old place, and when it had been rebuilt he had it taken down again for his son to see. Let this be a lesson to you, Gustave.”
Gustave had been listening with interest, and now he closed the book at once. There was a moment’s silence, while the General took possession of Moina, who could scarcely keep her eyes open. The little one’s languid head fell back on her father’s breast, and in a moment she was fast asleep, wrapped round about in her golden curls.
Just then a sound of hurrying footsteps rang on the pavement out in the street, immediately followed by three knocks on the street door, waking the echoes of the house. The reverberating blows told, as plainly as a cry for help that here was a man flying for his life. The house dog barked furiously. A thrill of excitement ran through Helene and Gustave and the General and his wife; but neither Abel, with the night-cap strings just tied under his chin, nor Moina awoke.
“The fellow is in a hurry!” exclaimed the General. He put the little girl down on the chair, and hastened out of the room, heedless of his wife’s entreating cry, “Dear, do not go down—”
He stepped into his own room for a pair of pistols, lighted a dark lantern, sprang at lightning speed down the staircase, and in another minute reached the house door, his oldest boy fearlessly following.
“Who is there?” demanded he.
“Let me in,” panted a breathless voice.
“Are you a friend?”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes! But let me in; they are after me!”
The General had scarcely set the door ajar before a man slipped into the porch with the uncanny swiftness of a shadow. Before the master of the house could prevent him, the intruder had closed the door with a well-directed kick, and set his back against it resolutely, as if he were determined that it should not be opened again. In a moment the General had his lantern and pistol at a level with the stranger’s breast, and beheld a man of medium height in a fur-lined pelisse. It was an old man’s garment, both too large and too long for its present wearer. Chance or caution had slouched the man’s hat over his eyes.
“You can lower your pistol, sir,” said this person. “I do not claim to stay in your house against your will; but if I leave it, death is waiting for me at the barrier. And what a death! You would be answerable to God for it! I ask for your hospitality for two hours. And bear this in mind, sir, that, suppliant as I am, I have a right to command with the despotism of necessity. I want the Arab’s hospitality. Either I and my secret must be inviolable, or open the door and I will go to my death. I want secrecy, a safe hiding-place, and water. Oh! water!” he cried again, with a rattle in his throat.
“Who are you?” demanded the General, taken aback by the stranger’s feverish volubility.
“Ah! who am I? Good, open the door, and I will put a distance between us,” retorted the other, and there was a diabolical irony in his tone.
Dexterously as the Marquis passed the light of the lantern over the man’s face, he could only see the lower half of it, and that in nowise prepossessed him in favor of this singular claimant of hospitality. The cheeks were livid and quivering, the features dreadfully contorted. Under the shadow of the hat-brim a pair of eyes gleamed out like flames; the feeble candle-light looked almost dim in comparison. Some sort of answer must be made however.
“Your language, sir, is so extraordinary that in my place you yourself—”
“My life is in your hands!” the intruder broke in. The sound of his voice was dreadful to hear.
“Two hours?” said the Marquis, wavering.
“Two hours,” echoed the other.
Then quite suddenly, with a desperate gesture, he pushed back his hat and left his forehead bare, and, as if he meant to try a final expedient, he gave the General a glance that seemed to plunge like a vivid flash into his very soul. That electrical discharge of intelligence and will was swift as lightning and crushing as a thunderbolt; for there are moments when a human being is invested for a brief space with inexplicable power.
“Come, whoever you may be, you shall be in safety under my roof,” the master of the house said gravely at last, acting, as he imagined, upon one of those intuitions which a man cannot always explain to himself.
“God will repay you!” said the stranger, with a deep, involuntary sigh.
“Have you weapons?” asked the General.
For all answer the stranger flung open his fur pelisse, and scarcely gave the other time for a glance before he wrapped it about him again. To all appearance he was unarmed and in evening dress. Swift as the soldier’s scrutiny had been, he saw something, however, which made him exclaim:
“Where the devil have you been to get yourself in such a mess in such dry weather?”
“More questions!” said the stranger haughtily.
At the words the Marquis caught sight of his son, and his own late homily on the strict fulfilment of a given word came up to his mind. In lively vexation, he exclaimed, not without a touch of anger:
“What! little rogue, you here when you ought to be in bed?”
“Because I thought I might be of some good in danger,” answered Gustave.
“There, go up to your room,” said his father, mollified by the reply.—“And you” (addressing the stranger), “come with me.”
The two men grew as silent as a pair of gamblers who watch each other’s play with mutual suspicions. The General himself began to be troubled with ugly presentiments. The strange visit weighed upon his mind already like a nightmare; but he had passed his word, there was no help for it now, and he led the way along the passages and stairways till they reached a large room on the second floor immediately above the salon. This was an empty room where linen was dried in the winter. It had but the one door, and for all decoration boasted one solitary shabby looking-glass above the chimney-piece, left by the previous owner, and a great pier glass, placed provisionally opposite the fireplace until such time as a use should be found for it in the rooms below. The four yellowish walls were bare. The floor had never been swept. The huge attic was icy-cold, and the furniture consisted of a couple of rickety straw-bottomed chairs, or rather frames of chairs. The General set the lantern down upon the chimney-piece. Then he spoke:
“It is necessary for your own safety to hide you in this comfortless attic. And, as you have my promise to keep your secret, you will permit me to lock you in.”
The other bent his head in acquiescence.
“I asked for nothing but a hiding-place, secrecy, and water,” returned he.
“I will bring you some directly,” said the Marquis, shutting the door cautiously. He groped his way down into the salon for a lamp before going to the kitchen to look for a carafe.
“Well, what is it?” the Marquise asked quickly.
“Nothing, dear,” he returned coolly.
“But we listened, and we certainly heard you go upstairs with somebody.”
“Helene,” said the General, and he looked at his daughter, who raised her face, “bear in mind that your father’s honor depends upon your discretion. You must have heard nothing.”
The girl bent her head in answer. The Marquise was confused and smarting inwardly at the way in which her husband had thought fit to silence her.
Meanwhile the General went for the bottle and a tumbler, and returned to the room above. His prisoner was leaning against the chimney-piece, his head was bare, he had flung down his hat on one of the two chairs. Evidently he had not expected to have so bright a light turned upon him, and he frowned and looked anxious as he met the General’s keen eyes; but his face softened and wore a gracious expression as he thanked his protector. When the latter placed the bottle and glass on the mantel-shelf, the stranger’s eyes flashed out on him again; and when he spoke, it was in musical tones with no sign of the previous guttural convulsion, though his voice was still unsteady with repressed emotion.
“I shall seem to you to be a strange being, sir, but you must pardon the caprices of necessity. If you propose to remain in the room, I beg that you will not look at me while I am drinking.”
Vexed at this continual obedience to a man whom he disliked, the General sharply turned his back upon him. The stranger thereupon drew a white handkerchief from his pocket and wound it about his right hand. Then he seized the carafe and emptied it at a draught. The Marquis, staring vacantly into the tall mirror across the room, without a thought of breaking his implicit promise, saw the stranger’s figure distinctly reflected by the opposite looking-glass, and saw, too, a red stain suddenly appear through the folds of the white bandage. The man’s hands were steeped in blood.
“Ah! you saw me!” cried the other. He had drunk off the water and wrapped himself again in his cloak, and now scrutinized the General suspiciously. “It is all over with me! Here they come!”
“I don’t hear anything,” said the Marquis.
“You have not the same interest that I have in listening for sounds in the air.”
“You have been fighting a duel, I suppose, to be in such a state?” queried the General, not a little disturbed by the color of those broad, dark patches staining his visitor’s cloak.
“Yes, a duel; you have it,” said the other, and a bitter smile flitted over his lips.
As he spoke a sound rang along the distant road, a sound of galloping horses; but so faint as yet, that it was the merest dawn of a sound. The General’s trained ear recognized the advance of a troop of regulars.
“That is the gendarmerie,” said he.
He glanced at his prisoner to reassure him after his own involuntary indiscretion, took the lamp, and went down to the salon. He had scarcely laid the key of the room above upon the chimney-piece when the hoof beats sounded louder and came swiftly nearer and nearer the house. The General felt a shiver of excitement, and indeed the horses stopped at the house door; a few words were exchanged among the men, and one of them dismounted and knocked loudly. There was no help for it; the General went to open the door. He could scarcely conceal his inward perturbation at the sight of half a dozen gendarmes outside, the metal rims of their caps gleaming like silver in the moonlight.
“My lord,” said the corporal, “have you heard a man run past towards the barrier within the last few minutes?”
“Towards the barrier? No.”
“Have you opened the door to any one?”
“Now, am I in the habit of answering the door myself—”
“I ask your pardon, General, but just now it seems to me that—”
“Really!” cried the Marquis wrathfully. “Have you a mind to try joking with me? What right have you—?”
“None at all, none at all, my lord,” cried the corporal, hastily putting in a soft answer. “You will excuse our zeal. We know, of course, that a peer of France is not likely to harbor a murderer at this time of night; but as we want any information we can get—”
“A murderer!” cried the General. “Who can have been—”
“M. le Baron de Mauny has just been murdered. It was a blow from an axe, and we are in hot pursuit of the criminal. We know for certain that he is somewhere in this neighborhood, and we shall hunt him down. By your leave, General,” and the man swung himself into the saddle as he spoke. It was well that he did so, for a corporal of gendarmerie trained to alert observation and quick surmise would have had his suspicions at once if he had caught sight of the General’s face. Everything that passed through the soldier’s mind was faithfully revealed in his frank countenance.
“Is it known who the murderer is?” asked he.
“No,” said the other, now in the saddle. “He left the bureau full of banknotes and gold untouched.”
“It was revenge, then,” said the Marquis.
“On an old man? pshaw! No, no, the fellow hadn’t time to take it, that was all,” and the corporal galloped after his comrades, who were almost out of sight by this time.
For a few minutes the General stood, a victim to perplexities which need no explanation; but in a moment he heard the servants returning home, their voices were raised in some sort of dispute at the cross-roads of Montreuil. When they came in, he gave vent to his feelings in an explosion of rage, his wrath fell upon them like a thunderbolt, and all the echoes of the house trembled at the sound of his voice. In the midst of the storm his own man, the boldest and cleverest of the party, brought out an excuse; they had been stopped, he said, by the gendarmerie at the gate of Montreuil, a murder had been committed, and the police were in pursuit. In a moment the General’s anger vanished, he said not another word; then, bethinking himself of his own singular position, drily ordered them all off to bed at once, and left them amazed at his readiness to accept their fellow servant’s lying excuse.
While these incidents took place in the yard, an apparently trifling occurrence had changed the relative positions of three characters in this story. The Marquis had scarcely left the room before his wife looked first towards the key on the mantel-shelf, and then at Helene; and, after some wavering, bent towards her daughter and said in a low voice, “Helene your father has left the key on the chimney-piece.”
The girl looked up in surprise and glanced timidly at her mother. The Marquise’s eyes sparkled with curiosity.
“Well, mamma?” she said, and her voice had a troubled ring.
“I should like to know what is going on upstairs. If there is anybody up there, he has not stirred yet. Just go up—”
“I?” cried the girl, with something like horror in her tones.
“Are you afraid?”
“No, mamma, but I thought I heard a man’s footsteps.”
“If I could go myself, I should not have asked you to go, Helene,” said her mother with cold dignity. “If your father were to come back and did not see me, he would go to look for me perhaps, but he would not notice your absence.”
“Madame, if you bid me go, I will go,” said Helene, “but I shall lose my father’s good opinion—”
“What is this!” cried the Marquise in a sarcastic tone. “But since you take a thing that was said in joke in earnest, I now order you to go upstairs and see who is in the room above. Here is the key, child. When your father told you to say nothing about this thing that happened, he did not forbid you to go up to the room. Go at once—and learn that a daughter ought never to judge her mother.”
The last words were spoken with all the severity of a justly offended mother. The Marquise took the key and handed it to Helene, who rose without a word and left the room.
“My mother can always easily obtain her pardon,” thought the girl; “but as for me, my father will never think the same of me again. Does she mean to rob me of his tenderness? Does she want to turn me out of his house?”
These were the thoughts that set her imagination in a sudden ferment, as she went down the dark passage to the mysterious door at the end. When she stood before it, her mental confusion grew to a fateful pitch. Feelings hitherto forced down into inner depths crowded up at the summons of these confused thoughts. Perhaps hitherto she had never believed that a happy life lay before her, but now, in this awful moment, her despair was complete. She shook convulsively as she set the key in the lock; so great indeed was her agitation, that she stopped for a moment and laid her hand on her heart, as if to still the heavy throbs that sounded in her ears. Then she opened the door.
The creaking of the hinges sounded doubtless in vain on the murderer’s ears. Acute as were his powers of hearing, he stood as if lost in thought, and so motionless that he might have been glued to the wall against which he leaned. In the circle of semi-opaque darkness, dimly lit by the bull’s-eye lantern, he looked like the shadowy figure of some dead knight, standing for ever in his shadowy mortuary niche in the gloom of some Gothic chapel. Drops of cold sweat trickled over the broad, sallow forehead. An incredible fearlessness looked out from every tense feature. His eyes of fire were fixed and tearless; he seemed to be watching some struggle in the darkness beyond him. Stormy thoughts passed swiftly across a face whose firm decision spoke of a character of no common order. His whole person, bearing, and frame bore out the impression of a tameless spirit. The man looked power and strength personified; he stood facing the darkness as if it were the visible image of his own future.
These physical characteristics had made no impression upon the General, familiar as he was with the powerful faces of the group of giants gathered about Napoleon; speculative curiosity, moreover, as to the why and wherefore of the apparition had completely filled his mind; but Helene, with feminine sensitiveness to surface impressions, was struck by the blended chaos of light and darkness, grandeur and passion, suggesting a likeness between this stranger and Lucifer recovering from his fall. Suddenly the storm apparent in his face was stilled as if by magic; and the indefinable power to sway which the stranger exercised upon others, and perhaps unconsciously and as by reflex action upon himself, spread its influence about him with the progressive swiftness of a flood. A torrent of thought rolled away from his brow as his face resumed its ordinary expression. Perhaps it was the strangeness of this meeting, or perhaps it was the mystery into which she had penetrated, that held the young girl spellbound in the doorway, so that she could look at a face pleasant to behold and full of interest. For some moments she stood in the magical silence; a trouble had come upon her never known before in her young life. Perhaps some exclamation broke from Helene, perhaps she moved unconsciously; or it may be that the hunted criminal returned of his own accord from the world of ideas to the material world, and heard some one breathing in the room; however it was, he turned his head towards his host’s daughter, and saw dimly in the shadow a noble face and queenly form, which he must have taken for an angel’s, so motionless she stood, so vague and like a spirit.
“Monsieur...” a trembling voice cried.
The murderer trembled.
“A woman!” he cried under his breath. “Is it possible? Go,” he cried, “I deny that any one has a right to pity, to absolve, or condemn me. I must live alone. Go, my child,” he added, with an imperious gesture, “I should ill requite the service done me by the master of the house if I were to allow a single creature under his roof to breathe the same air with me. I must submit to be judged by the laws of the world.”
The last words were uttered in a lower voice. Even as he realized with a profound intuition all the manifold misery awakened by that melancholy thought, the glance that he gave Helene had something of the power of the serpent, stirring a whole dormant world in the mind of the strange girl before him. To her that glance was like a light revealing unknown lands. She was stricken with strange trouble, helpless, quelled by a magnetic power exerted unconsciously. Trembling and ashamed, she went out and returned to the salon. She had scarcely entered the room before her father came back, so that she had not time to say a word to her mother.
The General was wholly absorbed in thought. He folded his arms, and paced silently to and fro between the windows which looked out upon the street and the second row which gave upon the garden. His wife lay the sleeping Abel on her knee, and little Moina lay in untroubled slumber in the low chair, like a bird in its nest. Her older sister stared into the fire, a skein of silk in one hand, a needle in the other.
Deep silence prevailed, broken only by lagging footsteps on the stairs, as one by one the servants crept away to bed; there was an occasional burst of stifled laughter, a last echo of the wedding festivity, or doors were opened as they still talked among themselves, then shut. A smothered sound came now and again from the bedrooms, a chair fell, the old coachman coughed feebly, then all was silent.
In a little while the dark majesty with which sleeping earth is invested at midnight brought all things under its sway. No lights shone but the light of the stars. The frost gripped the ground. There was not a sound of a voice, nor a living creature stirring. The crackling of the fire only seemed to make the depth of the silence more fully felt.
The church clock of Montreuil had just struck one, when an almost inaudible sound of a light footstep came from the second flight of stairs. The Marquis and his daughter, both believing that M. de Mauny’s murderer was a prisoner above, thought that one of the maids had come down, and no one was at all surprised to hear the door open in the ante-chamber. Quite suddenly the murderer appeared in their midst. The Marquis himself was sunk in deep musings, the mother and daughter were silent, the one from keen curiosity, the other from sheer astonishment, so that the visitor was almost half-way across the room when he spoke to the General.
“Sir, the two hours are almost over,” he said, in a voice that was strangely calm and musical.
“You here!” cried the General. “By what means——?” and he gave wife and daughter a formidable questioning glance. Helene grew red as fire.
“You!” he went on, in a tone filled with horror. “You among us! A murderer covered with blood! You are a blot on this picture! Go, go out!” he added in a burst of rage.
At that word “murderer,” the Marquise cried out; as for Helene, it seemed to mark an epoch in her life, there was not a trace of surprise in her face. She looked as if she had been waiting for this—for him. Those so vast thoughts of hers had found a meaning. The punishment reserved by Heaven for her sins flamed out before her. In her own eyes she was as great a criminal as this murderer; she confronted him with her quiet gaze; she was his fellow, his sister. It seemed to her that in this accident the command of God had been made manifest. If she had been a few years older, reason would have disposed of her remorse, but at this moment she was like one distraught.
The stranger stood impassive and self-possessed; a scornful smile overspread his features and his thick, red lips.
“You appreciate the magnanimity of my behavior very badly,” he said slowly. “I would not touch with my fingers the glass of water you brought me to allay my thirst; I did not so much as think of washing my blood-stained hands under your roof; I am going away, leaving nothing of my crime” (here his lips were compressed) “but the memory; I have tried to leave no trace of my presence in this house. Indeed, I would not even allow your daughter to—”
“My daughter!” cried the General, with a horror-stricken glance at Helene. “Vile wretch, go, or I will kill you—”
“The two hours are not yet over,” said the other; “if you kill me or give me up, you must lower yourself in your own eyes—and in mine.”
At these last words, the General turned to stare at the criminal in dumb amazement; but he could not endure the intolerable light in those eyes which for the second time disorganized his being. He was afraid of showing weakness once more, conscious as he was that his will was weaker already.
“An old man! You can never have seen a family,” he said, with a father’s glance at his wife and children.
“Yes, an old man,” echoed the stranger, frowning slightly.
“Fly!” cried the General, but he did not dare to look at his guest. “Our compact is broken. I shall not kill you. No! I will never be purveyor to the scaffold. But go out. You make us shudder.”
“I know that,” said the other patiently. “There is not a spot on French soil where I can set foot and be safe; but if man’s justice, like God’s, took all into account, if man’s justice deigned to inquire which was the monster—the murderer or his victim—then I might hold up my head among my fellows. Can you not guess that other crimes preceded that blow from an axe? I constituted myself his judge and executioner; I stepped in where man’s justice failed. That was my crime. Farewell, sir. Bitter though you have made your hospitality, I shall not forget it. I shall always bear in my heart a feeling of gratitude towards one man in the world, and you are that man.... But I could wish that you had showed yourself more generous!”
He turned towards the door, but in the same instant Helene leaned to whisper something in her mother’s ear.
At the cry that broke from his wife, the General trembled as if he had seen Moina lying dead. There stood Helene and the murderer had turned instinctively, with something like anxiety about these folk in his face.