CHAPTER I. THE DISCOVERY.
Down in the south-west of France, not very far from Bourdeaux—or, to speak more exactly, about the middle of a line drawn directly from that town to Aire—stands a curious old château.
You might pass within a stone's-throw of it and not be aware of its existence, so closely is it shrouded by the thick forest of pines for which that part of the country is famed.
Its position is very solitary, far removed from even a village, and the little rutty road leading to it is but a cross and unfrequented cut from one highway to another. Still, there it stands under the blue skies of Gascony, surrounded by its dark woods; an enviable posses sion, in spite of its loneliness and queer architecture. And dark deeds were done there in times and by men not very long passed away.
I made my acquaintance with the place, under a professional introduction, in this wise: I was an architect, young, struggling; with, I thought, a great deal of talent, which society neglected to its own in jury and mine. I had no work, and I had no means; moreover, I was in feeble health. One day my old master, who had always had a kindness for me, said, "Owen, my boy, I've got a job for you to do, if you are not too much engaged" (the dear old fellow spoke quite gravely, though he knew as well as I did that my only engagements were dinners and suppers with my fellow-idlers)—"to go abroad."
"I daresay I could manage it," I replied quickly.
"It's to go and examine an old château in the south of France—a tumble-down old place, I'm told, but which the family pride of its possessor won't allow to go to utter ruin. You've heard me speak of old Baron de Gaule? Well, it's one of his places; the one, I believe, from which his family derive their title; and though he hates his native country like the devil, he wants to take care of the old château. The job won't take you very long; but after you've made your report, he wants the place thoroughly repaired, or rather, restored. You can pass your summer weeks very pleasantly by taking up your lodging there and directing the work. You are to have English workmen sent to you. The old Baron would use English mortar, I believe, if he could. You speak French, I think?"
"Almost as well as English," I replied thankfully.
"Then the business is settled. I will give you the address of M. de Gaule, and you can take his directions from himself."
The Baron's directions were not much longer than my master's.
"Only restore the place; add nothing, take away nothing, my good sir, and spare no expense."
In twenty-four hours after hearing those words I was on my way; in forty-eight hours I was standing within the pine-wood, looking up at the crazy curious old château, wondering whether successive generations had contrived this piece of architectural patchwork, or some clever but muddled brain.
Its only occupant was a tall, middle-aged woman, who to my eyes, unaccustomed to the dark beauty and picturesque costume of the southern women, offered a charming contrast to our English pea santry. She was prepared for my coming, and received me hospitably; not altogether sorry, I fancied, to have some break in her monotonous life, and some companion in her solitude; for I found she had been busily employed for my comfort, and was most courteous in her endeavours to smooth the way to conversation. Truth to tell, my French was not quite so perfect as I had first thought it. However, we soon became excellent friends; and though my conversation was confined to short phrases and pleasant grimaces, I soon learnt to understand her perfectly.
It was rather a dull life, when the novelty of the place and climate had worn off. My surveying, of course, occupied most of my mornings; but I had no intention of over-working myself, and it was difficult to find amusement for the leisure hours. I couldn't always be walking about the country; being companionless, it was slow work; neither could I be content to spend the long evenings smoking under the pines. Again, even Josette's conversation was apt to grow tiresome; and I had no books beyond those my profession required. I began to understand the word ennui, and to feel ungrateful to the old Baron for his job, and to pine for London smoke; when one morning Josette, to whom I had confided my disgust of life, said, in her most maternal tones, "Monsieur should distract his mind. Why doesn't monsieur read? Reading is very amusing."
I believe Josette thought she was introducing me to a new branch of education; she spoke the word "read" in so solemn a voice.
"And where shall I find books?" I asked impatiently.
"Surely monsieur knows; surely monsieur can get them for him self," Josette said nervously.
"He certainly could, if he knew where from," I answered pettishly.
"Why, in Monsieur le Baron's room there were books; numbers!"
"In the Baron's room? whereabouts?"
"Why, under the big bed."
And after saying that, Josette put the bottle of wine she was bring ing me on the table, and went out of the room.
I finished my breakfast, and then went up slowly to the room called the Baron's. It was in a very out-of-the-way part of the house, low-ceilinged, octagon-shaped, and furnished with lumbering old furni ture, after the bare fashion of old French châteaux. I had visited it but once or twice, my attention being still given to the more modern portion of the house. Evidently Josette held it in disfavour, for the dust lay thickly on chairs and tables, and on some of the furniture were large stains of mould; while over the closed windows spiders had woven curtains of delicate web. I threw open the jalousies and let in a little of the fresh air and morning sunshine; and as I did so, a rustling and then sweeping sound came from under the English four-post bed, which stood in gloomy grandeur in the corner of the room.
I was not of a nervous temperament, and that sound did not even startle me; but when, the next moment, I stooped and lifted up the moth-eaten hangings to search for the box of books, I certainly did start back with an exclamation of something more than surprise. Under the bed stood a large black coffin.
For an instant I felt inclined to get away as fast as I could. I turned sick; but, as I said before, I was not naturally nervous, and the feeling soon passed off. Besides, the sunshine was flooding the dusty old room, and from the window a peaceful scene of woods and fields and deep-blue sky was visible; and I hold that daylight and nature are powerful foes to fear and superstition.
I looked again. It was a coffin; of that there was no doubt. A large coffin too, covered with black velvet and studded with black nails, and the lid was lying on it; but it bore no plate or cross or ornament of any kind. A sudden idea crossed my mind,—it contained the books, perhaps; and so I put forth my hand bravely, and, using all my strength, drew it forward. There was something uncanny in the hollow sound made by the lid as it fell on the ground; but I would not be horrified, and with a brave hand I lifted up a large sheet of fine lawn neatly covering something, and then a yellow piece of linen, and then something that looked like a garment. Grave-clothes, I thought to myself; and then my fingers touched some hard substances—books, thank Heaven!
A few dusty ponderous volumes of Voltaire, Rousseau, and other philosophers of the same genus, I soon pulled forth to the light of day, which they had evidently not seen for years, so yellow were their pages; and then I found a cushion lining the bottom, and a little pillow on which was the visible impress of a human head and a stain or two of blood.
The sight of the books had reassured me; but that round scoop in the pillow and the stains gave me another uncomfortable thrill. I turned eagerly to the lid and examined it. It had been used; there were the holes of the screws, and one long rusty nail was still sticking firmly in it, whilst on the outside were marks of its having come in close contact with a clayey soil. It had a dreadfully earthy smell too.
I drew back with a faint shudder. After all, it was a gloomy object to find under that gloomy bed, in that ancient gloomy room; and Josette had been so eloquent during our solitary evenings with horrible stories of the De Gaules past and present, that I may be pardoned if, as I bent over this strange piece of lumber and heard shuffling footsteps coming faintly along the passage, I uttered a horrified cry.
The footsteps came nearer, and, it seemed to me, more rapidly, as my scream, or rather exclamation, sounded awfully audible through the stillness of the house, and then to my horror the door of the room was opened suddenly, and a face, that even now I can never think of without a shudder, peered through it.
It was old; so old that features bearing the stamp of seventy years would have seemed youthful beside it, drawn and puckered and shrunk till it scarcely looked human, while two red seams on either side of the mouth seemed to extend it from ear to ear in a perpetual ghastly grin. On the chin grew a scanty tuft of long white hairs, but the scalp was entirely bald; and to increase the horror of such an object, the left ear was gone, and the right so frightfully mutilated that it was only by the position I recognised what the hideous lump of flesh had been.
My first thought was, that before me stood the former occupant of the coffin, and all the stories of ghosts, vampires, dead men wandering about their old haunts, wronged spirits tormenting those who had wronged them, rushed to my mind with the terrible conviction that I was about to be forced to add myself to the number of their believers, when from that hideous mouth came the sound of a human voice.
"Que faites, vous là?" said the aged apparition tremulously.
I don't know exactly what I said or what I did; I have a faint recollection of pitching a volume of Rousseau at the spectre's head, and then rushing down the old staircase at a rate that was increased by hearing a peal of goblin laughter echo through the house.
Josette met me. "Mais qu'est ce que c'est donc?" she exclaimed in alarm. "Have you seen the ghost of old Monsieur le Baron?"
"I have seen an awful object,"I answered breathlessly. "I have seen—"
"Moi!" exclaimed a voice on the staircase, and looking up, there we saw the hideous face grinning at us over the balustrades.
"Ah, mon pauvre grandpère, c'est toi!" said Josette composedly; then turning to me she laughed till the tears dimmed her black eyes.
I went out of the château in a huff, for I was young enough to resent being laughed at by a woman, even though that woman were an ignorant peasant; and I remained out until nearly dark.
When I returned to the château, I found my dinner comfortably prepared for me, and Josette in a repentant frame of mind. She did not make any allusion to the morning's adventure, but when she brought me in my dessert she said, with the gracious familiarity the French lower class so often assume with their superiors, that she and her grandfather were going to sit in the garden under the limes, and that if I would come and smoke my cigar, I should find it very plea sant; and, added Josette, her grandpapa would be so glad to have a little talk, and he did not look so ugly in the dusk.
I was not altogether pleased with the invitation, but I could not do otherwise than accept it. The old man received me very politely; he was sitting in an arm-chair, placed so that the moonlight did not fall on his ghastly features. We made a few observations on the scene, on my object in coming to the château, & c.; and then the old man, keep ing his hands curled in a curious fashion over the places where his ears ought to have been—I suppose to supply their lost assistance—said,
"I am sorry I frightened monsieur this morning. I know I am a frightful object to look upon; but at a hundred years of age one can't expect to be handsome."
"A hundred years! Are you really as old as that?"
"Mais oui, monsieur. It's a long life—a very long life; and the times I have passed through have been stirring times for France and Frenchmen: but I'm getting weary of it. Why, monsieur, my play mates were those whose bones are buried in heaps at Marengo and Austerlitz, who lie deep down in the blood-pits of the guillotine. I don't wonder you took me for a ghost; why, mine ought to be wandering about with the old Baron's; we've played together in life many a time."
The old man's voice trembled more as he spoke the last words.
"The old Baron!" I exclaimed; "that is the father of the present M. de Gaule, I suppose? Why, what makes his ghost walk more than the other De Gaules'; was he more wicked? Ah, and perhaps you can tell me for what reason he kept that ugly great coffin under his bed?"
"The coffin? Ah, the great black coffin! "repeated the old man slowly. "I remember that time well."
"Tell us, grandfather," said Josette. "It's a beautiful night to tell a story in the open air. Wait, and I'll give you a goutte to brighten your memory. There! Now tell us about the black coffin under the Baron's bed!"
CHAPTER II. THE FAMILY FEUD.
I won't tell you, monsieur (began the old man), about the grandeur of the old château at one time, about the wealth and power of the De Gaules, and about their long history of wickedness. I daresay Josette has told you enough about all that; but you must try and bear it in mind, if you would understand the story of the old Baron's coffin.
It was about the year '94—a bloody time, monsieur, when those that deserved it and those that didn't met together at the guillotine; when men were hunted about like wild-beasts by wild-beasts; when there was no peace or rest or safety in any corner of poor wretched France; when brothers turned against brothers, and parents feared their own children; it was in the very thick of those times that Monsieur Louis was Baron de Gaule. His father had died when he was but a child, and he came in to the money and estates when it would have been much better for him to have been still under the rod of the schoolmaster. He was a tall, fine man; not handsome, but of a figure that looked made for command. He liked commanding too, commanding not only the servants about him, but his equals, his brother and sisters, his friends and relations,—everybody about him. It was an unfortunate temper.
But in those times it was dangerous to displease the lower classes, and monsieur, as he was called—for he had dropped his title, like everybody else who cared for his head—had to restrain his temper at any rate towards his dependents. Perhaps that made him fiercer towards his brother and sisters. He certainly was a tyrant to them, especially to Monsieur Paul, and no one was much surprised when one morning M. Paul went off to Paris and joined the revolutionary party. He was a very handsome man, as different from his brother as day is from night; but though he had pleasant manners, and kind words for everyone, there was something in his eyes that told you the De-Gaule wickedness had found a hiding-place somewhere about him. I don't believe he loved anyone, though he pretended to like his proud tyrannical brother, and to be sorry for his sisters. I don't believe he loved even pretty Ma'amselle Pauline, who almost broke her heart when he went away, and who was the only one of the De Gaules who will ever get into heaven, if what M. le Curé says is true.
From the time M. Paul went to Paris, a change came over monsieur,—he was gloomier than ever, but more civil to those about him, and he seemed to take greater interest in all the bloody work that was going on in the dreadful city.
Till that time the family, in spite of its rank and wealth, had fared well enough. They had been forced to yield up some of their property, but otherwise the Revolution had done them little injury. It is true, the family consisted of only the two brothers and their three sisters, and they all lived together in the quiet old château, far away from even a village;—but in those times seclusion did not insure safety.
Monsieur had always inclined to revolutionary principles; indeed, the De Gaules, even in the most flourishing times of the Bourbons, had never been famous for loyalty, and at the commencement of the Revolution he professed open republicanism. He contented himself with "professing," however, and abode quietly in his old château.
I've heard it said that M. Louis was learned; that he read enough to turn his brain; but I know that I never saw him with a book in his hand. He would stay for days in his room (that called the Baron's); but whenever I went in to attend him, he was either sitting gloomily in his chair, or standing staring out of the window; and though books lay scattered about the room, not one did I ever see him touch.
Well, monsieur, after M. Paul went to Paris, as I said before, Louis grew gloomier than ever; at first it was a quiet kind of gloom, then it became restless, and then anxious.
We all saw that; for M. Louis was the head of the family, the master of us all, in spite of the Revolution, and we used to watch him, and study his face and his temper as some people do a weather-glass; and somehow, when he looked pleased, the old château seemed gayer, and we were all happier; whilst if monsieur looked cross or sad, it was a dull time for us. After M. Paul went away, there was not a gleam of happiness on M. Louis's face from one end of the week to the other; first he shut himself up in his room, then he took to wandering about the house, coming down among us servants in the kitchen, and going to the rooms of the young ladies. He seemed to hate being alone, though when he was with anyone he never talked; and after that mood passed away, he took to riding about the country, visiting the villages and the nearest towns. Sometimes after these visits he would throw himself off his horse and come striding into the château, his breath coming in great gasps, and his eyes rolling fiercely as he looked round on all of us, and he would shout out the last news from Paris as if it were almost maddening him. Poor little Ma'amselle Pauline would creep up to him then and try to soothe him, but he would shake her off and drive her from him, though at other times he would speak to her more kindly than he ever spoke to any other human being. Those were wretched days indeed, monsieur.
One day I was helping in the kitchen (there were not many servants about the château in those times; besides, I was a clever cook, and could serve up a dinner which even M. Louis enjoyed), when I heard monsieur coming along the passage, clanging his spurs on the stones.
"There's no change for the better in his humour," I thought to myself as I listened; and I was right, for the next moment he put his fierce face into the room, and shouted to me to go to him, as if I were a dog and he my master.
"I suppose you'd be frightened to put your nose outside the gates!" he exclaimed scornfully. "You wouldn't have the courage to go to Bourdeaux!"
"To Bourdeaux, monsieur?"I replied in amazement. "Has monsieur any business for me to do there?"
Instead of replying, he fixed on me his stern eyes, as if he would read my very soul. But I bore it without shrinking; I knew I was a faithful servant, and not a coward. Then he stretched out his hand, and as he laid it on my shoulder I felt that it trembled like a child's.
"Antoine," he said, "I believe as far as men can be good and true in these God-deserted times you are. I am going to test your fidelity and friendship, and I vow that, if ever the life shall be spared me, I will repay you if you stand by me in this hour of trouble."
"Monsieur has only to say what he requires done," I answered quietly; "my family was always faithful to the De Gaules."
He put his arm through mine and led me out to the group of pines standing there just to the left of the château. Though the sunshine was pouring down like molten gold on the country all round, it was cool as an autumn evening under the shade of the wood; and monsieur seemed to grow calmer as we walked among the trees.
"It's the old story, Antoine," he began, after carefully looking round; "the old story of brotherly hatred and treachery."
I started. "Not M. Paul!" I exclaimed; for though I had always liked him better than M. Louis, I distrusted him, and always feared that some day the evil shining through his blue eyes would work its way out somehow.
"What!" said monsieur scornfully, "have you too been taken in by his false smiles? Perhaps you would rather serve him than me—would you? Speak quickly."
His fierceness came back again; he seized my arm, and, with an other of those alarmed looks round him, put his other hand in his bosom as if in search of something.
"I serve the head of the family,"I replied calmly. "I am the servant of the Baron de Gaule, not of M. Paul."
He looked at me again, and then dropping my arm, said:
"I will trust you; I must trust you. You know I can reward you if you are faithful, and I think you know my temper well enough to know also that I could and would revenge myself if betrayed."
I did indeed, and yet I did not shrink from him.
"I have heard from Paris," he said in a quieter tone, "that there is every reason to believe my brother is playing treacherously with me. He hates me, and wants the property; you can guess what he means to do."
"Denounce monsieur!"I whispered.
"I am told that there is someone waiting to see me at Bourdeaux who has a message for me from Paul—some overtures he wishes to make, I suppose; and I am further told that it will be the worse for me if I do not meet this messenger." Monsieur paused a moment, then he added, "Now, Antoine, if I go—".
"Monsieur must not go," I interrupted; "he must send me."
"You would not be afraid? Cities are not like the quiet country."
"Monsieur, Antoine Bouteiller never knew fear," I replied.
"I believe you," he exclaimed, "and that is more than I could say to any other man in the world. Antoine, I accept your service; give me your hand, and swear that, come what will, you will keep faith fast to me, and not be won over by the false smiles and promises of my brother Paul."
So, putting my hand in my master's, I swore as he desired. Re member, monsieur, that that hand was then the clean hand of a French nobleman; there was only honour in touching it then.
CHAPTER III. THE MESSAGE.
It was a long distance to Bourdeaux; the old sun-dial standing in the courtyard of the château marked scarcely noon, as, mounted on M. Louis's own horse, I began my journey, and it was not very far off midnight when I reached the city.
It was but feebly lighted by lamps in some of the principal streets, and had it not been for the bright moonlight pouring down on it and the broad Garonne, I should have had some difficulty in finding the particular spot where I was to meet M. Paul's messenger. I knew it was to be on the quay, but I could not help being a little startled when a tall man wrapped in a cloak came and laid his hand on my horse's bridle.
"Vous, voilà!" said a voice that, in spite of the folds of the cloak being drawn over his mouth, I recognised as M. Paul's. I saluted him immediately; and then for the first time he seemed to be aware that I was not his brother. He drew back, muttering something between his teeth.
"Monsieur Louis couldn't come," I said; "he was not well enough to bear the fatigue of such a ride; but he has sent me to hear the news of M. Paul."
"Ill!" exclaimed M. Paul with a low, cruel laugh; "ill to death, I suppose? Perhaps it would be better for him that it was so."
"I hope not, monsieur," I replied, as if I knew nothing about his hatred for his brother, and trying to talk in the same respectful but familiar way I was accustomed to do with M. Paul. "I hope there's no bad news for him—no bad news for the family."
M. Paul walked on beside my horse for a few minutes without speaking. At length he turned to me, and said in his own quiet voice, but anxiously, "It's not likely, Antoine, that I should be away from my post in Paris at this time, unless fears for my family induced me. I have some power with the party now paramount, but not sufficient to insure protection to a declared enemy of the Republic."
"M. Louis an enemy of the Republic!" I exclaimed; "why, there couldn't be a stancher supporter of it! He's as red a Republican as yourself, M. Paul!"
"Bah! my good friend, it's easy enough to lie in this world, but not so easy to make yourself believed," M. Paul replied, taking out a small pocket-book and beginning to scribble something in it as he walked. "Look here, Antoine, I daren't do more than this — I daren't say more; but the sooner my brother Louis gets out of France the better for him. Give him this paper, and tell him what I've told you. These are fearful times for us all; natural ties bind no more than wisps of straw. Some fiend is calling for blood, blood; and as long as one can save one's own self, one dare not deny that of one's kindred. Get back to the château, Antoine, as fast as you can, and do as I tell you; it's the best and only advice I can give. Good-night."
He stood there under the moonlight, saying that in his quiet voice, and looking so sad and anxious, that I could not but think he meant what he said, and that M. Louis's suspicious nature had led him to imagine evil. I touched my cap to him.
"If you would just say a word how to manage to get master away, monsieur,—I don't believe he will be persuaded."
"Tant pis pour lui!" he replied, moving off. "I have done what I can; good-night." And before I could say another word he was gone.
I was not much of a scholar, and turn about that little bit of paper M. Paul had given me as I would, I could not make out a single word. But I was fortunate enough to meet little Mademoiselle Pauline in the pine-wood, as about noon next day I rode into the château grounds. No one knew where I had been except M. Louis; but I suppose mademoiselle guessed there was something unusual stirring to occasion my long absence, and she was on the watch.
A sweeter, kinder-hearted little lady than Mademoiselle Pauline I never knew; she was the only good thing about that gloomy old place, for the other two young ladies were very much like their brothers in disposition; Mademoiselle Marie resembling M. Louis, and Mademoiselle Clotilde, M. Paul. Well, when she caught sight of me, she came running up, and catching hold of the horse's mane, she exclaimed,
"Where have you been, Antoine? Tell me at once; I know there is something wrong going on by Louis's face; tell me out truly and boldly, Antoine." And she tried to look commanding and stern like her brother, but couldn't, because she was terribly frightened.
"Ma'amselle," I said sorrowfully, "if you want to know your brother's secrets, you had better ask him. Will you be kind enough, to read this paper to me? it's a note I have just found on the road."
She took it and glanced at it, and then looking up at me, she cried,
"Antoine, do not lie! This is my brother Paul's writing; where did you get it?"
"Will ma'amselle read it to me?" She bent her head over it, and her hand shook like an aspen-leaf.
"Things are looking black for you. The only plan I can think of is flight, or the one suggested. Should you determine on the former, let me know, and I will do all I can to delay a crisis."
We were neither of us great scholars, though ma'amselle could read beautifully, and when she looked up and asked me in a frightened tone what it meant, I could no more tell than she.
"Did Paul give it you?" she asked presently. "What! has he been so near without coming to see us, to see me?"and then she bent her poor tearful eyes again over the paper, and read once more.
"It's very dreadful," she said; "but do you know, Antoine, some times I think that—" She paused. "It's awful not to be able to trust one's own brother," she added. "Let us go to Louis."
Monsieur was in his room, standing staring out of the window, as was his habit. He let me come in, but ma'amselle remained at the door.
Then I told him about my meeting with M. Paul; and he gave a horrible smile as I told him how disappointed he seemed at finding it was not his brother; and he muttered, "I thought so — I thought as much." And then, catching hold of my arm, he cried loud enough for ma'amselle to hear, "Why didn't you shoot him dead where he stood? Traitor! You are all traitors together. To hold his life in your hand, when you knew it was a question between mine and his, and not take his! My God!"
And then he tore the paper from my hand, and almost hurled me out of the room; and there, as his sister and I stood in the passage, we could hear him raging within like a furious beast.
Ma'amselle Pauline put her hand on the balustrades, and crept downstairs; and then, as I followed her, she drew me into her own little room.
[Artist: David Henry Friston]
"Good kind Antoine!" she said, with her cheeks looking hot and red, and her eyes wild; "what shall we do? I believe he spoke truly: it must and will be his life or Paul's. They hate each other like wicked fiends instead of loving each other as brothers. What shall we do?"
"If Monsieur Louis would leave France," I began.
"He will never do that; he will stay and fight it out," she answered. "Why, Antoine, you have known Louis all his life, and can you remember a single instance of his giving way?"
I shook my head.
"Or of Paul being true?" she went on. "No, no, Antoine; the De Gaules have been a sinful race from the beginning, and in the end it will be the same. What shall we do, Antoine?"
Meanwhile, overhead we could hear the furious tread of M. Louis. It startled the poor young lady several times, and each time she exclaimed, "What shall we do?"
And then Mademoiselle Clotilde called her, and she was obliged to go away. There were so few servants in the château, the young ladies were obliged to do a great deal; and somehow it always seemed that Mademoiselle Pauline had the heaviest share of household work.
As she went away, she whispered, "Don't tell anyone, Antoine; and after dinner come into the great salon; I want to speak to you."
I never shall forget that dinner. I waited behind Mademoiselle Marie's chair, for M. Louis still remained in his room; and it was dreadful to watch the face of little Ma'amselle Pauline opposite. But she bore up bravely, ate and drank, and talked to her sisters as if her heart was the happiest in the world. Only once or twice, as she caught my eye, she gave a little start, when M. Louis's footsteps overhead frightened her.
Then I went to her in the great salon; but Mademoiselle Clotilde came too, and so I could get no more talk with her that night.
As for M. Louis, he went out as soon as the dusk had fallen, and did not return till dawn; and then, to judge by the sweat his horse was in, he must have ridden far and hard.
He looked frightfully haggard, and his eyes were fierce and blood shot; but as I opened the great door to him, he said to me so gently, "Get to bed, Antoine," that I took courage to reply,
"I was in hopes, monsieur, that you'd gone for good."
"No, Antoine; I'll fight it out with him," he answered, but in a less ferocious tone than I had heard him use for a long time when speaking of his brother.
CHAPTER IV. THE STRATAGEM.
How we watched the next day! Monsieur Louis from his window, I from mine, and little Ma'amselle Pauline from the flat roof of a part of the château, to which she had ascended through a small window in the roof. How we watched! How we listened to the slightest sound on the road! But the time rolled on; noon, afternoon, evening came, and there was no sign of soldiers near. The old château still stood peacefully among the unbroken stillness of the pine-woods.
M. Louis had been gloomier than ever all day; but to me and to Ma'amselle Pauline he spoke once or twice in an almost kind manner. He took nothing from dawn to dusk except a crust of bread and a large glass of brandy; and I observed that he scarcely ever moved from his standing position at the window. I had often seen him stern and unsociable, but never in such a mood before.
When it was quite dusk he roused himself a little, and then, precisely at nine o'clock, he put on a large cloak, and, calling me to follow him, set off at a rapid pace through the wildest and most secluded part of the grounds. We walked very fast, but it was dark when we reached the confines; and there, under a tree, I could dimly see the figures of two men, with some dark object lying at their feet.
My master walked on, and spoke for some minutes to these men; and then they went away, leaving the dark object on the ground.
Monsieur waited till they were out of sight, and then he called to me, and, pointing to the thing, said,
"Antoine, I want you to help me carry this."
It was a large black coffin.
"Is it heavy?" I asked, rather horrified, and raising up one end.
"Not so heavy as it will soon be," my master replied in his fierce voice. "Now then, move on!"
While he spoke he had lifted up the other end, and there we both stood in the dark night, with that hideous thing on our shoulders.
As we walked home, more slowly than we had come on account of our burden, fearful thoughts filled my mind. What could monsieur want a coffin for? Was there an occupant ready for it, or did he mean to commit suicide? The last surmise seemed scarcely probable; suicides seldom trouble themselves with funeral arrangements. When we reached the château, who should meet us, creeping out of the great salon, but Ma'amselle Pauline? She carried a candle in her hand, and I shall never forget her white scared face as she held it up and let its light fall on the great black coffin.
"What is it for?" she muttered between her clenched teeth. "O Louis, it is not Paul! Say it is not Paul!"
But Monsieur Louis only lowered the coffin from his shoulder, and, telling me to carry it up to his room, himself led the way.
Ma'amselle Pauline followed; and then, as we set our load down in the centre of the polished floor, she dropped into her brother's large chair, and exclaimed again, "O Louis, say it isn't Paul!"
He took no notice of her, but, taking the candle, knelt down by the coffin and began examining it carefully, and I did the same. There were small holes in the lid, and it was deeper than coffins usually are; whilst at the back there was a large air-hole, carefully concealed by the fringe of the lid. I began to understand its use, and so did Ma'amselle Pauline.
"Now then, Antoine, listen to me," monsieur said, as he looked up with horrible satisfaction from his examination. "I was not to be deceived by that kind advice to fly from France. I knew well enough what would happen; and I would rather face them all here with my sword in my hand, than be fired at in flight. If I should be arrested by order of the Convention, I also know my fate. This is what I propose doing: if strangers come to the châtean, you must give out that I am dead, and immediately close the coffin-lid on me and bury me in the vault in the chapel. If Paul comes with them, you need only place me in the coffin, and leave him and me to do the rest. You can let me stay safely in the vault for twelve hours; but after that, Antoine, Pauline, my blood will be upon your heads. There, now go; leave me alone, for God's sake!"
"I cannot, I cannot hear of such a dreadful, wicked thing!" Ma'amselle Pauline began, clasping her little white hands entreatingly. "O Louis, listen to me: hide while there is time—hide!"
"And what hiding-place within ten leagues of the château does not Paul know?" fiercely interrupted her brother.
"O Louis, he is not so bad!" mademoiselle said piteously. "Only try, and I will watch, and pray him—"
"Be silent, and go to bed. Do not preach to me; my mind is made up," monsieur answered sternly; and then he went out of the room; and as neither I nor the poor young lady liked to be alone with that hideous thing, we also went away to another part of the house.
"O, that these awful days were over!" ma'amselle murmured as she went into her own room.
But they were not over yet; they were only beginning.
The sun rose the next morning as bright and glowing as if it rose upon Paradise rather than great bloody France reeking like a slaughter-house. I could scarcely bear to look out on the brightness; still, it was some comfort to see that in the sunshine the country looked peaceful and quiet as usual; that between the trees there was no sign of glittering arms or terrible uniform.
I took a cup of coffee to monsieur's room as early as possible, but found him occupied in writing, and could not induce him to take it.
"Keep it for twenty-four hours hence, Antoine," he said; "I would dare wager I shall want it then. Remember, Antoine," he added, "twelve hours at farthest — for your life remember that!"
Monsieur looked at the black coffin lying at his feet as he spoke, and I shuddered.
Just then Ma'amselle Pauline called me softly; and when I went to her, she beckoned me to the window where she was standing.
"Look out to the west, Antoine; do you see anything?" she said, in a quiet, frightened tone.
I did look, and I saw a faint glittering far away along the Bourdeaux road.
"Mademoiselle, they are coming!" I said, feeling a great throb at my heart.
She grasped my hand, and away we both flew to M. Louis's room.
I think he had seen the glittering too, for we found him hastily arranging his room, shutting the jalousies, and giving it as much as possible the trim, tidy look of a death-room.
Then with trembling hands we arrayed him in the death-clothes, placed the coffin on the tressles in the centre of the floor, and him in it.
He had a small vial in his hand, and as he lay there his face looked so corpse-like, that I should scarcely have been afraid of M. Paul himself seeing it. Then, calling in the other young ladies, to whom mademoiselle had already explained the danger, I left the room to watch for the approach of the soldiers, and give the alarm whether M. Paul was with them or not.
I never shall forget the terrible anxiety of that watching. It seemed as if they would never come, and yet they were moving, moving, ever moving along the road.
Then I lost sight of them in the pine-wood, and that seemed an awful moment when I again saw them—yes, absolutely within the château grounds.
Was Monsieur Paul with them? I looked attentively. Yes, riding a little apart from the rest, there he was, not daring to look up with his traitor-eyes on the home of his ancestors.
I left the window, and flew rather than ran upstairs.
"Monsieur Paul is there!" I exclaimed, rushing into the room, and then with one hasty glance at the coffin—when I saw the occupant raise the vial to his lips—I ran downstairs to the courtyard, where the soldiers were already dismounting from their horses. As the captain called out for Citoyen Louis Gaule, and the rest began entering the house, M. Paul beckoned me aside, and whilst he pretended to follow them, whispered,
"Has he escaped? God grant that he has!"
"He has, monsieur," I answered solemnly; "he died not an hour ago by his own hand. Rest his soul!"
For an instant M. Paul started back in pale consternation; then he seized my arm, exclaiming,
"This is some trick! Louis is not the man to kill himself. Confess the truth, Antoine, and I will do what I can to keep up the deception."
I was taken aback by his soft sad tone, but I happened to look up into his evil eyes at the moment—that was sufficient.
"Go and look at him, monsieur," I replied sadly; "you will not doubt then. And what could he do? it was only a choice of deaths. Poison is not worse than steel. But go and look at him."
"I will," answered M. Paul in a hard tone.
The old man's voice quivered as he came to this, and Josette was obliged to give him another rather large goutte.
I shall never forget the sickening terror (he went on presently) with which I followed the soldiers and that cruel man up the old staircase to the Baron's room. I have gone through many dangers to myself since then, but I never remember feeling such an agony of fear as I did on entering that room, where Ma'amselle Pauline was sitting like a pale ghost on the floor, and that group of wild-beasts were crowding round the coffin in the centre. I went to the opposite side to where M. Paul was standing, and then I peeped over the shoulders of one of those wretches into the coffin.
I started; there was M. Louis, lying not in that forced stillness which he had first assumed, but dead : he could not but be dead, so white, so utterly still, were his features, so motionless his body, so breathless, pulseless. And then I looked up into M. Paul's face.
He was regarding the corpse with a gaze that was almost fiendish. For a whole minute his eye watched the pale face with an intensity of attention that, had the life-blood been flowing in its uncovered temples, he must have discovered it. Then he stretched forth his hand and took up the dead man's arm; and for an instant it lay placidly in his fingers, and then dropped with a dull lifeless thud on the breast.
After that he turned away, and putting his arm through one of the officer's, drew him apart, and talked in a low grave tone with him for some minutes.
Would they be satisfied? Would they go now, and leave us in peace?
I caught little ma'amselle's eyes for a moment, and they seemed asking me that.
Then Monsieur Paul and the officer came back to the rest, and the captain told them that apparently their work was done for them, that they might go down and rest themselves; and after a few savage words they went, with their swords clanging down the great staircase,—a horrid sound; and Monsieur Paul, the captain, mademoiselle, and myself were left alone with the corpse.
M. Paul went and again bent over the coffin, and he heaved a great sigh and murmured,
"Poor Louis, if he had only been persuaded! Poor Louis!" and then the traitor stretched out his hand towards his little sister; but she shrank away, and hid her face with her cold fingers.
The captain meanwhile had been standing at the window, but he came back as he heard M. Paul's voice, and taking up the coffin-lid, said gruffly,
"Come, come, if you want us to help you with this, we must go to work at once."
And then M. Paul sighed again, and with a hand that trembled, but not from grief, took the lid and laid it on the coffin, and then two of the soldiers were called, and I was sent for tools, and in a terrible quarter of an hour, monsieur, we had screwed up a living man in that hideous coffin. As we finished, the captain said quickly,
"Now to the vault, and then to breakfast. You're master here now, Paul Gaule, and we shall expect good wine;" and then he laughed, and M. Paul smiled with his lips, but his evil blue eyes remained anxiously fixed on the coffin.
"Let them dig a grave under the lime-trees," he said calmly.
"Monsieur!"I exclaimed in terror. "There's the vault in the chapel. The De Gaules were always buried there."
"Paul!" murmured the poor young lady.
But he answered, "What, a suicide in the old vault! Let them dig a grave under the lime-trees."
"Dig the hard earth under this broiling sun?" laughed the captain; "why the men would throw him to the dogs first!"
M. Paul turned pale.
"Well, then, to the vault!" he exclaimed. And then the three soldiers helped me to lift up the coffin, and we bore M. Louis down out of the house, across the sunny courtyard, to the little chapel, which had not been opened for many a day; and M. Paul, with his own hands, helped to lift up the flagstone before the altar, and then, by the light of a single candle snatched from one of the candelabra, we lowered Baron Louis de Gaule among the remains of his ancestors. A living man among the dead!
And there we left him; and as M. Paul put the key of the chapel into his pocket and came out into the sunshine, he looked round at everything with a smile.
O monsieur, there were fiends in those days!
All that day, till set of sun, the old château rang with obscene merriment. The soldiers forced their way into the cellars and larder; and those who were not lying under the pines dead drunk ransacked the old château from roof to basement; then they lounged about the great saloon, smoking, and swearing, and drinking, and singing ribald songs; or hunted the young ladies from room to room, or insulted us servants; whilst M. Paul sat at a little table, in the shade there of those limes, with two or three of them, and sang republican songs; and kept shouting to me to bring wine, to supply his friends with wine, the best wine!
It seemed to me as if that great blazing sun would never go down; and yet the hours were rolling on, and if more than twelve passed whilst the Baron was in his living tomb, there would be blood on our heads,—on poor little ma'amselle's, who sat there still on the floor in the Baron's room, and on mine.
CHAPTER V. THE RESULT.
I cannot tell you the joy of my heart at, an hour before dark, seeing signs that those drunken wretches were about to depart. It wanted but half an hour of the twelve that M. Louis might safely remain in the vault; and Ma'amselle Pauline, having come down from the room, stood in the dark shadow cast by the little chapel, waiting for me.
I counted each minute as it passed, and there they rolled on, and those wretches still lingered by their horses and wouldn't mount. My God! that was the most terrible half-hour I have ever passed.
Mademoiselle was standing leaning against the hard wall of the chapel, and wearying Heaven with her prayers; but Heaven was obdurate. Ten o'clock struck, and they were still shouting with their drunken voices in the château grounds.
I grew desperate, and in my desperation a thought flashed across my mind, the window over the altar! why not reach my unfortunate master by that? I fetched a flask of brandy, some tools, and a small pistol, and then, accompanied by my young lady, I crept quietly round to the back of the chapel.
There was a tree growing tolerably near; with a little exertion I soon reached the window.
"Holy Mary grant you may not be too late!" whispered mademoiselle. And then I opened the window gently, and let myself down on to the ground behind the altar.
I was not nervous naturally; but still, there was something awful in going down among the dead to wake up the living; and a cold sweat ran down my face as I moved gently towards the altar to get a candle before descending into the vault. But, to my surprise, the flagstone lying on the altar-steps nearly threw me down; and from the open vault came a faint light. Could the Baron have got out of the coffin?
Almost numb with a ghastly kind of terror, I reached the edge, then down a ladder placed there into the vault. At the farther end, where the coffin had been deposited, stood a man, stooping down and watching something. Tools were scattered about, and the lid of the coffin was standing against the wall. I made no noise. I did not see the man's face; but I knew it was M. Paul.
"Now," I thought, "as M. Louis said himself, it is but a question between their two lives." So I raised my pistol, and pointed it at the stooping figure; just then a feeble groan echoed through the vault, and I fired. A maddening moment followed. I saw a man turn on me like an enraged beast, and as we closed together in a struggle that was to be death to one of us, I caught sight of a ghastly face rising from the coffin.
Then, monsieur, whether I fainted, or became insensible from a blow, I am not certain, but it was dark for a long time.
I woke up lying on my back in the cool night-air, with the stars of heaven peeping at me through the trees. Beside me was a tall figure partially dressed in white, partially naked, busily employed in digging. The hideous reality came back to me at once. But was it M. Louis or M. Paul? Which life was gone?
I rose up faintly, and looked around; beside me lay the black coffin with the lid covering it, and the moonlight was playing on the white features of the Baron Louis digging in the earth. As I rose up, M. Louis came up to me.
"We must make haste," he said, "and bury it out of sight. They'll be back again before dawn."
He spoke huskily, and not altogether like a rational being; whilst his features were awful to look on.
"Where is Monsieur Paul?" I asked in a low voice.
"Dead," he answered; "in there;" and he pointed to the coffin. "Come and dig; I tell you they'll be back before dawn."
And I did dig; and the black coffin lay there beside us.
"Did you kill him?" I asked presently.
"Dig," said the Baron; "they'll be back, I tell you."
There was a faint glimmer of dawn in the eastern sky when that grave was finished, and then I had to go into the chapel for ropes to lower the coffin into it.
On the altar-steps sat Ma'amselle Pauline. How she had got there, I do not know. She did not speak a word as I entered; she did not even raise her eyes from the gaping vault at her feet, but sat like one in a trance.
I returned to M. Louis, and together we lowered the coffin into the grave, and shovelled-in the earth.
"We must make it flat, we must make it flat!" the Baron shouted as he jumped into the grave from time to time, and trod down the earth with his feet. "Flat! flat! that they may not discover it."
He looked so awful, so fiendish, almost dancing there on his brother's corpse, that at length I could stand the sight no longer, and I rushed into the chapel. The dawn was just struggling in through the open window, and its light fell on the poor young lady's bowed head. I went up to her and tried to speak, but my tongue would not utter a sound; I was dumb as the dead. And there she sat and I stood, while outside we could hear that husky voice shouting "Flat! flat!" Presently he came after me, calling my name; and then, as the gray light fell on his dreadful face and figure, and his sister saw him, she started up like one awakened from a dead sleep. "O," she exclaimed; "Louis, where is he?" and then she seemed suddenly to remember something; she shrieked out, "Buried alive! buried alive!" and she fell down like a stone at her brother's feet.
And those words of hers, monsieur, brought a terrible fear on me—one that, as I hope for pardon, never had crossed my mind before.
I staggered like a drunken man, and was about to rush back to the grave, when the maniac caught hold of me and flung me down into the vault, and there, as I struggled in the darkness, I heard the flagstone thrown over it.
(The centenarian paused as he came to this, and stretched out his trembling hand towards the brandy-bottle.)
The horrors of that night, monsieur, you must think will never end; and I thought the same. It was terrible to lie there among the dead, and fancy you could hear the muffled cries of a man reaching you through a wall of earth. If ever I got out of the place, I knew it would be too late to save him. The deed was done. It had been a struggle between their two lives, and Louis had won. I lay there for hours; it seemed to me ages; and then, to my intense joy, I heard footsteps overhead, and a gleam of light came struggling down, and a flood of light—for so it seemed to my eyes wearied from the darkness—and women's voices called my name. I contrived to crawl out somehow, and then I found Mademoiselles Marie and Clotilde, one holding brandy, and the other bread, and both pale as death.
It was evening, they told me. Their brother Louis had ordered them to wait until sunset before they released me. He had set off to Orleans, they believed; at any rate, he was gone; and Pauline was lying upstairs in a terrible fever, shouting out, "Buried alive! buried alive!" they supposed in fear for me.
I let them think so. I knew it was too late to do any good.
I went upstairs, dressed myself, and ate, and put things straight a little after the drunken revels of the soldiers; and when it was dark I took my spade and crept out to that dreadful place under the lime trees. It was sickening work; and when I came to the black coffin, I dropped my spade and felt I could do no more.
No sound came from it. I took out my chisel, and set to work to take the lid off, but it was firmly screwed on, and I had to work hard for many minutes. At length it was off, and then, holding my breath with fear, I looked in.
It was a ghastly sight, monsieur. A face agonised and blackened, with staring blue eyes, the forehead bruised and battered, and the teeth clenched, absolutely closing-in the nether lip; hands grasping each other with such force that one or two fingers were quite crushed. There was no doubt of what death he had died.
Years and years passed away after that. The old château was closed, for M. Louis went to Paris and showed that he was as stanch a republican as M. Paul had been. I followed him; and more than once, as I have heard of his ferocity and seen his white savage face, I have felt certain that it was some fiend who took possession of the body of the Baron when he rose from the dead that night, and that it was not my old master—bad as he had been—who did that awful deed.
As for the young ladies, Marie and Clotilde went to Italy, and took up their abode in some convent; poor little ma'amselle died of the fever; and well it was so, for she would have had a cruel life, haunted by the remembrance of that night.
When times grew more settled, M. Louis, or Baron de Gaule as he then dared to call himself, went to England, and married an English lady, the mother of the present Paron, and there he lived till, I suppose inspired by a love of country, he returned to the château for a few months' visit, and died suddenly.
He never forgot his promise to me, and not only gave me money whilst living, but provided for me in his will.
But we rarely met; I think even his heartlessness could not bear the sight of me. He saw no priest; and I believe the story of that awful night—of how he got his brother into the coffin, of how he over powered him, or even of how he himself contrived to revive from that deathlike trance—never passed his lips. He died as he had lived gloomy and unrepentant. The only allusion he ever made to the past was on the evening of his death.
"Antoine," he said, "under my bed you will find the black coffin don't bury me in that. Remember, I won't be buried in that I could not rest."
And after his death, to my surprise, I found that coffin, empty too, under the bed in his room. It looked strangely new, considering it had been buried in the earth for, I thought, years and years.
How it was, how it got there, what became of the remains of M. Paul, I cannot tell you. There lies the ugly thing as you saw it, after having been buried twice, and having twice mysteriously got rid of its occupant, ready for a third; and a third, monsieur, will soon be ready for it, or rather, for one of its relations, for, like the old Baron, I don't believe I could rest in it.
Shall we go into the château, monsieur? The air blows somewhat keenly.
I rose up rather reluctant to enter the gloomy old place; but old Antoine put his arm through mine and led me in.
"Those times are passed and gone," he said; "and thank the good God they are. Ah, monsieur, if you like to hear stories, I can tell you many a one of those times, that while you hear shall make you forget your ennui. I can tell you something about myself which would make your flesh creep;—tell you how I became the hideous object I am."
But I thought I had had enough horrors for some time; and I must confess that instead of reconciling me to my solitude, that story of the Baron's coffin made me pine after my London home more than ever. It was with the greatest satisfaction that I received a letter from my employer, saying that he had changed his mind concerning the restoration of the old château, and he intended to employ the money in building a gothic villa on the banks of the Thames instead, of which he hoped I would immediately set about drawing the plans.
And so, in spite of the shady delicious old pine-woods, and the sunny blue skies of Gascony, I was very glad to turn my back on the old château.
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