I. THE VIPER OF PENCOET.
Born in 1461, died in 1541. These were the dates; but they came in the midst of a long Latin encomium, setting forth the dead man's titles, honours, virtues; his noble life and saintly death. And above all this flattery—giving it the lie—reposed the stern stone face, with a fierce frown still upon the brow, and lust and cruelty lurking in the lips and massive jaw.
"The monument of the Count de Quèrebréon," said the guide." He died, you perceive, in the middle of the sixteenth century, but his memory still lives in many a legend round about Pencoet. He was wise in council and brave in war, so history says; nevertheless the peasants, who were his slaves, named him the Bad Count, and it is only by this name that he is remembered here. He was reputed a wizard, and it is said he built the towers and dungeons of Pencoet by magic. Ah, we have done away with such places and such gentry as these now!"
And the guide snapped his fingers with a contemptuous gesture over the marble countenance of the Bad Count.
"By the sculptor's flattery, he is represented with a serpent beneath his feet; but the common story the people tell respecting this device is, that the Count is thus depicted, because in his lifetime he called vipers to him by magic, and placed them in his dungeon. Then, if any of the peasants offended him, down the culprit went amongst them, and he never came up again alive. Ah, there were strange things done in those times, messieurs! I believe the story is true; for to this day there are more snakes about the ruins of Pencoet than you and I would like to meet. The walls of the tower and of the dungeons are standing still, though in the Revolution the château was sacked and burned to the ground.
"You scarcely believe the story of the snakes, you say? Well, gentlemen, if it be not true, why did the witch Morven, whose daughter died shrieking in the dungeon of Pencoet, put a curse on all the Count's female descendants? All the ladies of Pencoet die snake bitten, every one. Ever since the days of the Bad Count there has never been a Demoiselle de Quèrebréon who was not snake-haunted. One of the family—the grandfather of the last count, the émigré—built a terrace on the roof of the château, that his only daughter might take the air there; and he never let her put her foot to the ground, yet she died as all the daughters of Pencoet die, snake-bitten. My belle-mère can tell you that story. Her grandmother was the young lady's bonne, so she has heard the tale many a time, and knows it by heart."
Thus it happened that by the wide hearth of the kitchen, in a Breton homestead, I heard from the lips of old Marie Huït the legend of the Viper of Pencoet.
Yes, Pencoet is the place for vipers; they lie in heaps among the rocks and ruins on the hillside. It is a doleful place now. The moon light and the sunlight shine through the rifts in the walls, and the rain beats down upon the ruined hearth. But you have heard what a grand pile it was once, and how in the old time the Bad Count called the vipers to him by magic, and filled his dungeons with them. In this cruel way he killed many a poor prisoner. Now, one of these was a beautiful girl named Morven, whom he had long kept in his tower; but wearying at last of her tears and her hatred, he flung her to the vipers, and she perished miserably. But it would have been better for the Count to have died himself, rather than have resisted the prayers of the damsel's mother, who begged for her daughter's life upon her knees. She was a witch, and when she truly knew her child was dead, she way laid the Count and his retinue as they returned from hawking, and from the top of a great rock she called down a curse upon him: "The vipers of Pencoet shall cling to you," she cried, as she shook her withered hand above his head; "and not a daughter of your line shall live to be a mother! The snakes, which your cruel magic has called to you, shall follow them, and, like the girl whom you have murdered, they shall die in terror, snake-bitten!"
With this, she flung herself from the rock, and lay a disfigured corpse at his feet. He had her buried with bell and candle and many masses, but her spirit haunts Pencoet still. She comes, they say, in shape like a woman; but as you gaze at her, she fades down to the ground, and glides away like a snake.
In his old age the Count sent for help to a holy hermit, who lived in a cave among the rocks, and prayed him to remove Sibylle's curse from his house. But he gained only this answer:
"The cruel curse its course shall run
Till Sibylle's daughter wed Pencoet's son;
Then Love shall save the sinking bride,
And witch and wizard lie side by side."
A prophecy scarcely likely to come to pass. Though they do say a Monsieur Morven has bought the estate and old ruins lately.
Well, dismal as Pencoet is now, it was a noble pile in my grand dame's days; and she has told me that she saw it many a time filled with riches, splendour, and grace. But never was there such a feast given as at the christening of the little lady Mélanie; for a daughter had not been born to the noble house of Quèrebréon for nearly fifty years; therefore the Count and Countess were full of rejoicing. They gave a fête to all the country round about; and among so many guests it was no marvel if some faces were strange to the host and hostess. But they passed unquestioned, as being friends or relatives of those invited. Thus, a dame of some forty years, dressed in antique fashion, who sat silent and unknown at the feast, was nevertheless as courte ously treated as the most honoured there. And when the time for pledging healths arrived, the jewelled cup was placed in her hand in due turn.
Then she rose slowly, and the guests on either side felt a deadly fear, as though some snake with rustling coils and erected head was about to strike. But she, holding the cup in an untrembling hand, addressed the Count in a clear voice:
"Monsieur le Comte," she said, "I drink to the health of your daughter, the noble Demoiselle Mélanie Louise Artemise de Quèrebréon; and I warn you that, guard her as you may, she shall not escape the doom of the daughters of your race. Before the last day of her twenty first year sinks into night, she will die snake-bitten. If she breathe one hour after that sunset, then let her live out her life; let the curse of Sibylle Morven die, and let the words of her, whose dearest child perished in dishonour beneath this roof, be counted as a vain threat."
So saying, she flung the goblet upon the inlaid floor, and glided backwards from the hall, subduing every angry face by the hate and vengeance imprinted on her brow. And it was not till her figure vanished through the arched door, that men sprang to their feet, and women with white lips asked who was the intruder.
"Seize her!" cried the Count. "What trick is this? Who has dared devise this farce?"
No voice answered. And soon frightened servants came breathless to tell that the stranger-guest had disappeared, and no eye had seen her as she passed. Then swords were drawn, and angry nobles rushed into corridor and court, while ladies grew white with fear, and aged dames whispered together of the bad Count, and of that young girl who, hating his cruel love, had at his command perished by a frightful death.
After a long vain search, when lords and ladies returned to the feast, there remained a shadow on every face, and neither wine nor music could bring back the banished gaiety. Even in the dance, whispers floated in the air of the witch Morven's curse, and of the strange deaths of the daughters of Pencoet. Notably, ladies murmured softly to their partners of one fair girl who had perished on her wedding-day by the bite of a viper, which had crawled from the rushes that strewed her chamber.
Now, whether these legends of his house, or the threat of the an known guest, or his own superstition, influenced the Count, we know not, but he came to the strange resolve, never to permit his daughter to place her foot upon the ground. And to accomplish this without injury to her health, he built a terrace on the roof of the château, where she could take the air unscared by the fear of Sibylle Morven's curse. Thus the Lady Mélanie de Quèrebréon from infancy to womanhood never once stepped on heather, grass, or roadway. True, she some times rode out in a lumbering carriage or on horseback, guarded by serving-men. And it was on one of these rare occasions that she met the young Count Léon de St. Marc, the handsomest cavalier in Brittany.
Curious to behold a lady threatened with so sad a fate, he gazed at her with kindly sympathy in passing. Then he saw a lovely face, somewhat pale and sorrowful; and, doffing his cap, he bowed low out of courtesy to her beauty. And the sweet face haunted him, till his heart, flaming up into a great love, pined for the love of Mélanie in return. How he wooed and won her I know not, but very soon the Countess de St. Marc came in state to Castle Pencoet, and formally demanded the hand of Mademoiselle de Quèrebréon for her son. Right joyfully her parents accorded it, stipulating only that the young Count should not ask for his bride till after her twenty-first birthday. In vain he prayed and implored, protesting he could guard his fair lady from all things hurtful; her noble father and mother, made timorous by their affection, would not alter their resolve. So the lovers had to part; for Léon was ordered away to join his regiment in Flanders.
Slowly and sadly the weeks went by for Mélanie; and often as she walked upon the terraced roof she wearied, and gazed wistfully up the northern road towards that distant hill where Léon had lingered and waved his last adieu.
Thus the months crept by, autumn and winter gliding into spring, and the woods were green again. Then the Count wrote from the camp, "Dear Love—,I will be with you on your birthday." And the girl, counting the weeks on her white fingers, longed for that day as the thirsty deer pants for the water-brooks. But her father and mother, knowing this was the last year of probation and pain, watched her joy wistfully; and as each morning rose in sunshine and summer heat, they guarded her with treble care and yearning love.
At length the day, the fated day, arrives—he last day of her danger, the last day of this fevered watchfulness and fear—and she rises blooming like the rose, and as full of song and joyfulness as the earliest lark mounting the morning sky.
Surely for this one day they can keep her safely, they murmur, as anxious looks gaze into her smiling eyes, and tears and kisses fall upon her face.
O the long, long June day! How the shadow of a cloud or the rustle of a leaf made hearts tremble as the sultry hours waned slowly! At length the lagging sun goes blazing down the sky, setting the hori zon in a purple flame, and flashing the northern hills with golden fire; and still radiant in health and loveliness, Mélanie stands unscathed at the impurpled window, watching the shadows lengthen.
She had wearied all the day for her lover. At dawn she had said, "He will be here at noon;" at noon she sighed, "He will come at sun set." But now the sun was sinking, and still his coming tarried.
"Mother, I will go upon the terrace," she said, "and see if Léon comes. From that height I can look up the northern road a league or more."
At the door she turned, kissing her hand gaily; then sprang up the steep stairs, singing as she went.
The hot day had cooled somewhat towards the clear east, but all the northern and western sky was ablaze with sunset glory; and this dazzled her sight awhile as she looked towards the north; but, shading her eyes with her hand, she saw her lover and his retinue near the castle-gate.
"Léon!" she cried; and stretching out her arm beyond the battlement, she waved her handkerchief to him joyfully. Seeing the signal, the young count put spurs to his horse, and entered the courtyard before his followers. Here he raised his hat, and looked up at Mélanie with a happy smile of love. At that instant a hawk, soaring high above the beautiful head of his lady, crossed the roof; and as he gazed upwards his eyes wandered for a moment from his love to follow the flight of the gallant bird. As it passed the terrace, he saw it dip suddenly, then mount again with a shrill scream, and fly onward towards the wood.
"A brave falcon, Mélanie!" he cried, as he turned his eyes, some what aching and with the sun in them, on the terraced roof. But Mélanie was gone. Then he passed his hand across his brow, and with strained sight gazed eagerly on the battlement, whence a minute ago a white arm had waved him a welcome. But the place was still a blank.
"She has descended to the salon," he said. But something chill and heavy touched his heart as he sprang from his horse, and entered the castle with hasty step.
In the hall he took the Count's greeting, and on the stairs stood Madame with outstretched hand; but his eyes passed her wistfully, longing with faint misgiving for the face of Mélanie.
"Where is she?" he said.
"Gone upon the roof to watch your coming," returned the lady. "O Léon, give us joy that the last day of fear and danger is over!"
But as she spoke his heart beat with thick strokes like a death-bell, and there fell upon his spirit a cold cloud of gloom and terror.
"I saw her on the terrace for a moment," he said; "then she vanished like a shadow."
Catching the infection of his fear, the face of the Countess grew death-white, and, seizing his hand, she hurried to the roof. The Count followed, speaking not a word as he went. In this deep silence they mounted the steep stairs, and as they reached the door opening to the sky, the place seemed empty and silent as a new-made grave. Just as their hurried feet touched the leads, the last narrow rim of the golden sun went down behind the purple-tinted hills, and, with shrinking eyes fixed on it, they stood a moment in wordless fear. Léon's voice broke the spell that chained them.
"Mélanie! Mélanie!" he cried. "Do not hide from us, I entreat thee!"
There was no sound in answer save the echo of his words and the lowing of the kine upon the hills. Then the mother ran forward wildly, and saw her child.
She was lying in the glow of the sunset, the glory of the fading sky tinting her white robes and her dead face. For she was dead; and close beside her bare and pretty arm there lay a wounded viper, dying in the dying light of the sinking sun.
But it had done its work. Wounded as it was, it had had life and strength enough to fulfil the weird doom which the curse of Sibylle Morven had pronounced upon all the daughters of Pencoet. The hawk, in passing, had dropped the reptile from his claws upon the roof, and, being angry and full of pain, it had perchance sprung at Mélanie; or it might, in falling, have touched her arm and coiled about it, she holding it then outstretched to wave the handkerchief to her lover, and thus—she being foredoomed—it stung her, then dropped upon the leads to writhe out the remnant of its half-crushed life.
None knew whether she died in a death-swoon through terror, or whether the poison in her veins worked thus swiftly, the fangs of the creature being perchance the deadlier for its wound and anger.
Thus, before the purple sky had faded into gray, they laid her cold upon the bed, and strewed white flowers over her.
Her lover never married. He was slain in the wars; and the Count and Countess, grieving for him as for a son, went sorrowing to their graves. They never went to court after their daughter's death, but lived sadly at Pencoet, succouring the poor.
"And have any other ladies of the Quèrebréon family been snake haunted?"
"That is more than I can tell you," answered dame Huït. "I only know that a girl was born at Pencoet in 1790, and she was named Mary, and vowed to the Virgin from her birth. Her parents filed to England with their children. Then the château was burned to the ground, and the lands sold, and from that day to this the Quèrebréons have never returned to Brittany."
"And let us hope that in another land Mademoiselle de Quèrebréon escaped the doom of her race, and is now among her children and her grandchildren."
"If she lives, she is in a convent; for, as I have said, she was vowed to the Virgin. No Demoiselle de Quèrebréon will ever be a mother," returned the Bretonne scornfully. "No, no, the Bad Count doomed all the daughters of his house when he murdered Sibylle Morven's child."
"So you have been listening to an old legend, a snake-story?" said Dick Walrond. "Well, I can tell you a snake-story too, if you care to hear it. And mine has the advantage of being true."
You recollect Fred Calloway—as good and jolly a fellow as ever joined us? I was in India with him in 1861; and getting leave for a month or two, I went to stay with him at his bungalow, near the wild lonely station where he was quartered. Fred had been married about a year, and his wife was certainly the prettiest girl in India. All his brother-officers were dying with envy at his lack, but he was by no means jealous, for Mrs. Calloway's whole affection was so entirely his, that there never appeared the slightest shadow of distrust between them.
Knowing how happy they were, I was surprised to see Mrs. Calloway, one morning at breakfast, looking excessively pale, while Fred himself was by no means at ease. Of course I made no remark at the time; but afterwards, when we were having a smoke together, Fred himself began the subject.
"You saw there was something wrong this morning," he said. "The fact is—it is a deuce of a bore, Walrond, and I scarcely like mentioning it, the idea is so uncomfortable—but the fact is, my wife has got it into her head that there is a snake either in the garden or the bungalow."
"Well, certainly that is not exactly a happy thought," I answered. "What reason has Mrs. Calloway for supposing anything so unpleasant?"
I fancied Fred's face changed oddly at this question, but he replied cautiously:
"She gives no reason. Only she is sure of it, that's all. The truth is," here he threw the end of his cigar on the ground in a vexed way, "there is an idiotic superstition in my wife's family, that all the female members of it are snake-haunted. And Louise has got an idea fixed in her mind that she will die of snake bite before she is twenty-one. Being aware of this foolish terror of hers, her father and mother have cheated her respecting her age. She thought she was twenty-one last year, and she would not marry me till her birthday was passed. Now, will you believe it? her uncle, on her mother's side, has been idiot enough to send out some stupid paper for her to sign, connected with the property which she and her brother hold jointly; and in this document is stated the fact, that she is not twenty-one till next week. The paper arrived yesterday, and she wept and trembled the whole night through. I feel completely knocked-up about it. I have a great mind to take her back to Calcutta at once."
"The journey would be horribly distressing at this hot season," I observed. "And she is just as likely to meet with a snake in a strange bungalow as here."
"That's true," said Fred, with a very distressed look. "You know, at any other time I would laugh her out of her fears; but now it is no laughing matter, when one does not know what deadly mischief even a slight terror might cause."
"Why don't you send for a snake-charmer?" I asked. "He will find the reptile, if there is one hereabout; and anyway Mrs. Calloway will feel happier if the premises are searched."
"It shall be done," said Fred, much relieved at the idea. "But, my dear fellow, I wish you would say a word or two to her on the absurdity of these superstitions."
"I'll do that willingly, if I have an opportunity," I answered.
Accordingly that evening as we sat together, her husband being on duty, I broached the subject cautiously; but Mrs. Calloway understood me at once, and replied with perfect frankness.
"Fred has been talking to you," she said in a low voice, "and told you to persuade me that my fears were vain."
"Depend on it they are so," I returned. "You are nervous and depressed by the heat; you will feel better in a few days, when the wind changes."
"In a few days!" she repeated, and her eyes filled with tears. "O Mr. Walrond, shall I be here then? The depression, the horror I feel are surely sent to me as warnings."
"As warnings of what?" I asked gaily.
"Of death," she answered. "Mr. Walrond, I am snake-haunted. I feel, I know there is a snake near me now. It is useless to reason on the instinct which tells me this. As well reason on the craving in the bird which forces him to migrate. I know I speak truly; that is all my knowledge."
"I am sorry," I said, "that you have so gloomy an idea; but it is one whose truth can easily be tested. Fred has sent to the village for a snake-charmer; so if one of your enemies is really here, he'll put in an appearance, and we shall have the satisfaction of despatching him."
She tried to smile, but her face grew very pale, and she ceased all effort to be cheerful.
"O, how I wish I could think poor Fred's precaution of any avail!" she said; "but the presentiment at my heart is too heavy to permit me to have a hope. As to there being a snake here, I know there is one; and, Mr. Walrond, you may discredit me if you will, but I know too that it followed me from the wood on the day I rode thither with you and my husband."
"Mrs. Calloway, how can you suppose such a thing possible?"
"I don't know," she answered dreamily; "but I felt the creature gliding through the bushes near me; and when I stopped, it stopped. Do you remember I made many pretences for resting as we rode home that night? But the horrible reptile never tired, and, as truly as I live, it came home with me to this garden."
"But why did you not speak of your fancy then?" I asked. "We would have made the men search on every side."
"I was afraid to speak of it," she said. "Fred is always so hurt and annoyed if I revert to the superstition in my family; and besides, of what use to speak if one is doomed?"
"My dear lady," I answered, "this is folly indeed. What do you mean by being doomed?"
"I mean, that the women of my family are all snake-haunted. Did you ever hear how my aunt died? No. Then I will tell you. She was dedicated to the Virgin from her birth, and at twenty years of age she entered a convent in Italy as a novice. Her parents, hoping to save her life, consented to her joining one of the strictest orders of nuns, those who are cloistered completely from the world. In yielding her to this living death, they thought she might escape the curse of our race. On the evening before the day on which she was to take her vows she was very sad, and, clinging to her mother, she told her of a horrible dream she had had. 'I dreamed,' she said, that a woman came to me whose head was covered by a hood, and, stooping to kiss me, I saw she had a snake-face beneath it. Then, when her dreadful lips touched mine, I died; and taking me in her arms, she bore me away to a terrible dungeon filled with writhing shapes; but here I was snatched from her by loving hands, and weeping for joy I awoke.' Her mother interpreted this dream favourably, and bade her daughter be of good cheer. But the hope was false: she was found dead the next morning in the convent-garden. A small wound was on her wrist; it was punctured by the fangs of the most poisonous snake in Italy. Now, Mr. Walrond, what will you say when I tell you I have had the same hideous dream that my aunt Marie had?"
"I should say that your imagination had been unduly excited by dwelling on her history," I replied.
"No," she answered; "I believe I rarely think of her. She was much older than my father, and she died long before I was born; so it is scarcely likely my mind should dwell on her. Yet the dream she dreamed has come to me. I saw a tall thin woman approach me, dressed in a strange garment striped in many colours, and with a hood drawn over her head. When close to me, she stooped suddenly, and, lifting her hood, showed me a hideous snake-face; and in spite of my loathing she pressed this face to mine, and kissed me. Then she wreathed her arms about me, and I felt myself borne away to a wild spot, where stood a castle and a dungeon filled with such shapes as we see only in dreams. Into this she would have cast me, but I was snatched from her; and as a sound of heavenly music filled my ears, I awoke. This was my dream, but no words that I can utter would ever tell the horror of it."
She put her hand over her eyes, and again I saw tears steal through her fingers.
"You are feverish," I said; "and your dream convinces me that you have dwelt morbidly on your aunt's fate. Why else has your brain, in sleep, repeated the same vision to you? I cannot myself think seriously of these fancies, except in so far as they worry you. Try, for your husband's sake, to fling off this superstitious gloom. You cannot think how distressed he is on your account."
"I will try," she said; and she wished me good-night more cheerfully.
The snake-charmers arrived on the next day, and after much fuss they proceeded to business; the result being that they conjured out of the garden-wall a small snake which was pronounced to be of a "bad kind," and which was forth with despatched.
"Here is your enemy, Loo," said Fred in great glee, "as dead as Nebuchadnezzar's grandfather; so I hope you'll sleep soundly to-night."
For a few days after this, I fancied Mrs. Calloway looked happier; but one morning at tiffin, when Fred happened to be absent, she sud denly bent towards me, and put a little packet in my hand.
"Give that to my husband," she said, "when I am gone. I have not the heart to pain him any more with my forebodings, but I shall not survive my birthday."
"Do you still cherish so gloomy an idea?" I asked, "when you know we have found your enemy and killed him?"
"Do you think," she said earnestly, "that my foe is dead? I tell you, no. That was not the snake which followed me from the wood. Let poor Fred deceive himself if he will; but I must tell the truth to you."
I knew not how to answer her. This fixed idea of hers shook my unbelief, and filled my mind with a shadowy horror, which grew upon me day by day. Hence it was an inexpressible relief to me to see her on the dreaded anniversary looking more radiant and cheerful than she had appeared for weeks.
"Loo is twenty-two to-day," said Fred; "and I have had her enemy put into a bracelet for her."
So saying, he opened a morocco case, and displayed a serpent of lapis-lazuli and diamonds.
"Do not deceive me, Fred," said his wife, as she stretched out her arm to have the bracelet clasped on it. "I fear my uncle is right, and I am only twenty-one to-day."
"Nonsense!" returned her husband, as his fingers trembled in fast ening the bracelet; "you are quite mistaken, Loo; you are a year older, my lady, than you think. Come, don't be dismal."
He kissed her on the cheeks, French fashion, and with a pretty flush on them she turned and received my good wishes and congratulations. Fred had organised a sort of impromptu party for his wife's birth day; but the heat was so intense, that none of our visitors made their appearance until the evening. Then they came riding up to the bun galow in all kinds of ways—ladies in palanquins, men on horseback, children in litters.
I had not seen Mrs. Calloway since the morning, as the heat had forced us all to take an unusually long siesta; but now, as Fred and I ran into the garden to welcome the guests, he called to a servant and asked for her.
"She is sleeping still, sahib," he said.
A moment after this we heard a low cry, which brought us all to the veranda of the bungalow; and here I beheld a sight which will never be erased from my memory. Within the wetted blinds, and be neath a large swinging punkah, Mrs. Calloway lay sleeping on a couch, underneath which was coiled a monstrous cobra. An Indian girl, who had been fanning her mistress, had fallen asleep also at the foot of the couch, and her drooping arms, as they lay over the side, nearly touched the glittering serpent. Paralysed by this sight, we stood an instant in speechless horror; then Fred would have rushed forward and seized his wife, but he was held back by many arms.
"Be silent, for heaven's sake!" whispered one; "if the snake is roused, he will spring on her or on us. Fetch a gun, some one."
But when this was brought, no hand had the courage to fire. The sleeping serpent was so close to the sleeping women, that it seemed impossible to kill it without wounding them; and the noise and suddenness of the report might as surely kill Mrs. Calloway as the bullets.
"Fetch a basin of milk," whispered an old colonel.
It was procured instantly, and placed as near the snake as a gliding, silent native would venture to creep.
All this while I held Fred with both arms, for his impetuosity would have roused the reptile, and have left us no hope. It was a horrible sight to see the unconscious figures of the sleeping women, while this deadly creature lay so near them. In breathless agony we watched the cobra, as slowly it became conscious that its favourite beverage was near. It raised its head as we drew softly aside; then heavily its hideous coils fell flat, and it crept out from beneath the sofa. The sleeping girl moved slightly, but not a fold of Mrs. Calloway's robe was stirred, as the snake, in long undulations, quitted the couch, and crawled cautiously towards the milk. Poor Fred had hidden his face in his hands. He was covered with a cold sweat; his cheeks and lips were livid, and words he tried to utter died down in his parched throat. Our utter powerlessness to attack the creature as he lay close to the sleepers had overcome him with agony; but now, as the cobra drew slowly away from those whom a rustle or a sigh might have made his victims, hope breathed again over the husband's heart. There was another instant of dire suspense, then the hideous hooded head was bent over the basin, and the black tongue touched the milk. At the same moment a rifle-shot rang through the air, and the snake lay dying and powerless. With the report of the gun, the young Indian started to her feet with a scream; but her mistress remained motionless.
No one could hold Fred now, and he sprang forward and clasped his wife in his arms. Then he staggered and fell back, reeling like a drunken man.
"My God! what is this?" he said, in a low, still voice.
Willing to leave him for a moment to calm his agitation, his friends had moved away; but they turned as he spoke, and the surgeon of the regiment gently took his wife from his failing arms and laid her on the couch.
"She is dead," he said. "My dear Calloway, try to bear this blow like a man."
But the unhappy young man scarcely heard him, he was bending over his wife in a distracted state.
"Is she faint? Is she snake bitten?" he asked.
Meanwhile the doctor had examined Mrs. Calloway's hands, her wrists, her rounded arm—Fred's bracelet still on it—and there was no mark or sign of wound; neither was any found ultimately on a more minute search.
"I grieve to say that I think she died of terror," said Dr. Gurney. "The horror of the snake's presence overcame her. Perhaps she awoke as it was approaching; and when it placed itself beneath her couch, her inability to escape, her sense of horrible danger, her loathing of such a death, and maybe the odour of the hideous reptile, all combined to bring on syncope and death. It is evident that the shock was so sudden she had not strength or time to cry out or wake the servant."
It was very little of this discourse that Fred Calloway heard. He swooned away, and on recovering from his faintness he grew feverish and delirious. When he rose up from that sickness all his youth was gone, and his hair was gray.
"Did you ever hear Mrs. Calloway's maiden name, Walrond?" I asked.
"It was a queer name—Kerrybron, or something of that kind. She was not altogether English: her grandfather was one of the La Vendée émigrés. But she was brought-up by her mother's family; for her father, I believe, is a scapegrace of the first water."
"I thought her name was Quèrebréon; and your snake-story, Walrond, is only a continuation of the one I have just heard at the ruins of the old château of Pencoet."
III. SIBYLLE MORVEN; OR THE DOCTOR'S STORY.
I had been dreaming, half sleeping, over a book, when the clash of the bell aroused me.
"Who is ill?" I cried, starting up hurriedly.
The strangest thoughts rose in my brain—weird shadows, vague shapes, broken visions of scenes well-nigh forgotten, all whirling round the central picture, which was sketched thus: a snake in the foreground dead, beyond it a crumbling ruin, pale in the quivering light of a cold moon; above, in the solemn sky, a flying scroll and a pointing hand; and over all a cloud of horror, through which I struggled, and confronted a tall figure standing silent at my door.
"It was the book," I said within myself, closing it wearily. "Mine is not the brain that can bear to pore over these mystic poems, half dreams, half madness, wrought out in wild music, which breaks upon the sane mind like a breach of many waters. No; such reading disorders the wits, or I should not have awoke with that old Breton melody in my ears, and the ruined dungeon of Pencoet in my eyes."
I was dreaming again, when a rustle at the door drew my gaze to my silent visitor. I scarce knew if she were real, or only a phantom—a shadow of my dream of Pencoet. She was tall, and her striped dress of black and yellow fell in the strangest undulating folds below and around her feet. She wore a hood, dull-brown in colour like a withered leaf, covering her head, and in her long thin fingers she grasped a thick black cane. On this she leaned, bending herself with a motion that brought a sick shudder to my frame, for it mingled strangely with my dream of the Pencoet snake, and that vile dungeon of wicked times wherein Sibylle Morven's daughter died. And as I glanced beneath the bending woman's hood, I fancied there gleamed upon me glittering eyes, which fascinated and drew me on to death.
"But these fantasies spring from the poem, or grow out of my half-waking sleep," I said. So rising, I set a chair for my visitor, and my thoughts flew back to the words I had said on waking.
"Is there anyone ill who needs me?"
"Sir, my daughter lies dangerously sick. Will you come and see her?"
Her voice was low, yet to my ears it had a strange hissing sound, and the accent was not English.
"Are you an Englishwoman—a stranger?" I asked.
"I have lived in India and in England long enough to be a stranger in my own land," she answered, "and sorrow has brought me back to it. Sir, as a stranger, I preferred to come to you a stranger, to ask your aid for my daughter."
"I will go to her instantly," I said. "Will you not sit while I get ready?"
"No; I am in a hurry to be gone," she answered. "Here is my address."
And she laid a card upon the table; then, bowing to me, she glided to the door, and, as she lifted her head erect, the horror of my dream fell upon me like a thick cloud, and the black-and-yellow folds of her dress seemed a serpent's coils. As I gazed at her she vanished through the door, and closed it with a silent hand. I had not caught a glimpse of her face once.
Shaking off my dreaminess, I took the card, and read the name of a decaying street in the oldest quarter of this ancient Breton city wherein I dwelt.
When I reached the place, I found the way so narrow that I would not drive thither, but flung the reins to the servant, and went down the ancient pavement on foot. I stopped before a gabled house, with casements of antique fashion overhanging the darkened street-a goodly mansion in the olden time doubtless, for all the front was carved with quaint carvings, some heraldic, some emblematic. Beneath the central window impish heads amid twisting roses peered upon the spectator, leering at him full of malice. Above the door there hung a scroll in stone, wreathed with serpents, and on this a date which brought a chill to my blood—1461—the date carved upon the dungeon of Pencoet. The lurking demons among the flowers seemed to point at it and laugh, while I read it by the waning twilight.
As I touched the door it opened, and, stepping within, I found myself in darkness; but a light glimmered above upon the ancient staircase, and that soft sibilating voice bade me ascend.
Striving with my fancies, I mounted the antique stairs with a quick step. The balustrades were dust-laden, the walls dusky with age, and the panels crumbled as I touched them.
The hooded woman was standing at a carved doorway on the top most gallery, and beckoned me within. She held a lamp in her hand, the light of which fell within the hood, and by this I saw, as I live, a snake-face—a small flat forehead, gleaming eyes slightly protruding, a mouth with fangs, and lips so thin that they seemed but a livid line upon the outstretched snaky jaw. As I looked upon her I shuddered, and as in passing within the doorway she bent her serpent-head to me, I drew back with a sudden start, shivering as though her fangs had struck me.
"She is there," she said, drawing her hand from beneath her dark mantle, and pointing towards the window. There I saw a high bed, with the light of the new-risen moon falling on it with chequered shadows from the casement—a greenish-silvery light, somewhat deathly—and one ray like a silver lance lighted up a lily face, lying still and pure as marble on its pillows. The eyes were closed, the lips apart, the cheeks dead-white, and round about them fell heavy masses of dark brown hair, holding a wave of gold within their ripple. She was beautiful exceedingly, with the beauty of the dying lily or the fading rose.
"What ails her?" I said gently.
"Dreams," answered the snake-woman, with that low soft voice of hers. "Dreams! She is love-sick."
I thought she laughed drearily, as, drawing her yellow hand within the folds of that hooded mantle, she laid it on her heart, and swayed her body with that writhing motion which seemed to put a snaky coil about my brain.
"Love-sick!" I repeated softly. "Well, 'tis a fever we all have in youth. Let us deal gently with it."
Upon this, I drew near the sick girl, and, as I stooped above the bed, the woman held the lamp, and the flame flared on her snake-face, marring the soft moonlight flickering on her daughter's brow.
I took the girl's pale hand, which lay listlessly above her head among the tangled masses of her hair, and I spoke kindly to her, hoping, by my soothing speech, to win her confidence. When her eyes were open and met mine, I saw they were dark and lustrous, but they swam in tears, and these somewhat dimmed their beauty.
"Can you save me?" she said wearily. "I am afraid to die. And such a death—O horror!—such a death!"
Shuddering, she drew her hand from mine, and throwing her arms above her head, there rang a shriek from her lips that made my heart quail.
"See! see!" she cried; "they come! I feel them writhe about me. Send the light away! O, in mercy send the light away! If I did not see their flashing shapes, I might die more quietly."
She stopped, and fixed her large eyes upon the moon in mournful wistfulness, then falling back again upon her pillow, she closed them gently, as though she had but dreamed.
"How long has she been like this?" I said.
"A week," the woman answered, hissing out her words between closed lips—"a week like this. But she has been ailing and fright ened a long while—ever since that accursed breed pursued her with lying love."
"Speak plainly," I replied. "Let me know the truth."
But here the girl's soft hand seized mine, and she began to murmur in broken words—
"Gabriel! Gabriel! my beloved, save me from him! I cannot love that cruel man. There is a hate heavy as a mountain lying on my heart; there is a loathing hundreds of years old coursing through my veins, which makes me choose death rather than endure his touch. Mother, give me poison. I will drink it joyfully. You will not? Then I will die in the dungeon."
She started up, and thrust her hair back from her wild eyes.
"Unhand me! I'll die! I choose death, even such a death as your mercy gives, rather than suffer a kiss of yours upon my lips."
"You see," said the hooded woman bitterly, "what they have done for my child. They have driven her mad."
"Take heed, mother, what you say!" cried the girl in an eager whisper. "He is here listening. I saw his face at the door as you spoke."
I turned alarmed, half-thinking her mad fancy true; but I saw nothing except the darkness dust-laden, into which the moonlight shone faintly.
When I looked upon the girl's face again, her eyes met mine with a wan smile.
"I am weak as a little child when these strange fits leave me," she said in a sweet voice. "When you leant over me just now, you brought it with you—that madness—and there fell down upon my brain from out your very eyes the horror that kills me."
"Were you followed when you came hither?" asked the woman abruptly.
"I observed no one," I answered. Then I asked a question in my turn. "Are you here alone, madam?"
"Yes. Wherefore not? I can nurse and guard my child better than a stranger."
"But to be here alone—without help," I said.
"I need none. We are strangers—we are better alone. There is no one I can trust."
She turned away from me, as though the question was at rest, and I, following her with my eyes, saw her tall shadow waving on the wall, with hooded head like a snake about to strike. And through my veins there crept a dull chill fear, like the hatred that lives between man and serpent. The shadow coiled along the dusky wall, and crept slowly, slowly to the floor, and there it lay between her and me in ghastly length, as I talked to her of her daughter's fever, and told her how to use the remedies I would send.
"Is there a cause," I asked, "for the strange disturbance of her brain?"
The woman put her yellow finger on her lips, and her eyes shot fire.
"There is a cause indeed," she said—"a cruel cause. But I cannot tell it now. Sir, the days of oppression for the poor are not yet over. You see me here, hidden from our enemy—driven from our home—desolate, poor, lonely— Hark! was that a step? Sir, you must promise me to observe caution in coming hither. You must not be watched or followed. I came to you because you are a stranger. You do not practise among the Bretons and the French?"
"No, madam, I do not. Had you not spoken to me in English, I should not have come hither to-night."
"Sir, I thank you for your kindness. Much anxiety, much sorrow, have done the work you see yonder;" she pointed to the pale quiet figure of the sick girl. "Another time I will explain why I entreat you now not to name us to your acquaintance, and above all, if pos sible, to keep our abode a secret."
"Madam, I will obey your request,"I answered.
Then I passed out of the door—I would not step upon the shadow as I went—and the woman, following me, held the lamp high above her head to light me down the dusty staircase. As I descended the light waned, till, at the stair-foot, all had vanished except one faint ray, and in that ray, for one flashing second, I saw standing in the air, like a stone head—all else being dark—the hard marble face of the evil Count de Quèrebréon. I sprang forward to the spot where I thought he stood, but my hand struck only at the empty wall, and the dreary dust came rattling down with dismal echoes from the crumbling stones. Then I groped my way, with bruised hands, to the crazy door, undid the ancient latch, and stood in the old street bareheaded beneath the moon.
"Truly," I said, "Fancy is a jade that plays us sorry tricks. That wild poem, over which I slept, and my dreams have made me half-mad to-night. The evil Count lies dead with a ton of marble on him, and Sibylle Morven sleeps in her unknown grave. What fantastic fantasies are these which float before my brain?"
A road by the river-side, beyond this an avenue of budding chest nuts, then a common wooden gate, and opening this, I drove within the untidy garden of a Breton country-house. The rain beat against the windows in sudden gusts, as though thrown in fury by a passionate hand, and all round about the lonely place the storm howled and moaned like the shrieks of drowning voices in a doomed ship.
Drenched by the pitiless tempest, I stood in the hall, and glanced within the doorway on the Englishman who had sent for me so hurriedly that his messenger, who roused me from my slumbers, would scarce give me time to dress. He sat in a large arm-chair placed by the hearth, on which smouldered a dull wood-fire. I could not distin guish his features. But suddenly, as my voice reached him, he turned round, and I saw the cold hard stony face of the evil Count de Quèrebréon.
Then it was no phantom that met my gaze in the old house, but he himself in the flesh. But wherefore was he there? and why does his secret presence drive that poor fading lily into madness?
Thinking thus, I gazed at the man in a vexed way, and said coldly:
"I thought to find you, sir, stretched upon a bed of pain or fever."
Then the hard sarcastic face was turned full on me, and looked me through. There was no roundness, no soft superfluity in its outline; yet it was a handsome face, cold and cruel, but beautiful with the repulsive beauty which the leopard and the tiger bear. It was a face of power, crowning a frame full of strength and grace, which bore no mark of age or sign of a coming change, though evidently the man had seen five-and-forty summers.
"There lies my disease, sir," he said calmly. "I cannot go to my bed. If I sleep I die."
Upon this, suddenly interested, I drew nearer to him.
Ah, a case of hypochondria, I thought. "Then I presume you take rest in this arm-chair?" I said.
"No; I rest nowhere. I keep myself awake to live. For, I repeat it, if I sleep I die."
"And how long have you had this singular belief?"
"A week," he answered; "but not every day and night throughout the week. Last night I slept. To-night I shall be poisoned again."
"Poisoned!" I exclaimed, and I laid my fingers on his wrist. "Have you not strength of mind to see that you labour under a mere delusion?"
For a moment he was silent, and again I felt that his searching glance looked me through.
"Mine is not a brain likely to suffer from delusion," he said; "neither am I a man, as you supposed, who would rouse a physician from his sleep unnecessarily. Sir, in an hour from this time I shall be in danger of death. Do you know that even now I am exerting all my strength of will to keep myself awake?"
"Your pulse is certainly low and feeble," I responded; "and your hand is cold. Let me stir these logs, and get a better fire here."
"No," he answered; "the heat will but increase my drowsiness."
Then he laid his cold damp hand on mine. "Do you believe in witchcraft?" he said abruptly. "Tell me truly whether, as a physician, you consider there may be latent powers in the brain which, if exerted with sufficient force of will, might be flung beyond oneself, as it were, to the injury of others. That would be witchcraft, I take it; would it not?"
"No; and there can be no such power," I answered, "unless you place on the other side brutal ignorance, weakness, and credulity."
He smiled, and his stony face grew sardonic with that smile.
"Imagination and faith, even an evil faith, can do strange things," he said. "There may be, there are, beings who possess a demoniac power, hidden in the blood or in the brain, impelling them to try mysterious experiments; and though tradition gives this power most to woman, man may possess it also."
"And what then?" I asked.
"Why, then, sir, there may be a fight going on between me and my enemy. She wants my life; I want her daughter; which of us will win?"
He glanced at a timepiece on the mantel." These attacks seize me," he said, "an hour before the dawn—that fatal hour when human vitality is at its lowest ebb. I have yet time, then, to tell you the story which will explain my words.
"I am English born, but my parentage is Breton. My father was an émigré, a Count de Quèrebréon. I have dropped the countship; but last year, finding that the son of the rascally roturier who bought our family estates was in financial difficulties, I thought I would come over here and try to repurchase a few of my hereditary acres. I found the man—an Indian trader—a poor wretched shivering creature, on the verge of bankruptcy. I became acquainted with him and his wife and daughter. I—well, I admired the girl, and I offered to assist her father; but my offers were declined. Upon this I completed the purchase of Pencoet and of other property of his, including his house in Paris, which his family now had to leave. I bought-up debts of his also, and—well, in fact, the sanctified, I suppose, would say I persecuted them. In reality, I merely exerted my right. The man became bankrupt and died—he was a weak creature; and his widow and daughter fled. The former had hated me from the first, and she prejudiced the girl against me; but for her I should have had none of this trouble. I had organised a plan to separate her from her mother, when they, having an inkling of my scheme, fled and evaded me. Well, a week ago I discovered their retreat, but I have managed cunningly to let the old snake-she is a snake—think that she has discovered me, and I am still ignorant of her abode. She is dwelling in an ancient house in this city, so ruinous that it is about to be pulled down; but she has persuaded the owner to delay the work for a week or two; and in this miserable refuge she has hidden herself and her sick daughter. I have legal claims upon the girl; she signed some of the bonds which her father gave me; so you can understand wherefore they hide. But there are other ways-better ways than the law can give—" Here he smiled sardonically, and rubbed his white hands together in ugly glee. "And I fancy she will remain in that old ruin till I have conquered the snake her mother, and choose myself to cure her, and take her with me to England. There is no danger, I think, of her moving, and giving me a six months' chase again—O no!" He smiled again, but at the same instant a convulsion twitched his face, and he held-on with both hands to the stout arms of the oak-chair. "The old snake's venom is strong to-night," he said, grinding his teeth. "You see, I can but subdue her through her love for her child; it is for my life's sake. To save his own life a man loses pity."
"And you believe, then," I said, willing to humour his madness, "that the woman has bewitched you?"
"Judge for yourself, sir, when my attack begins in earnest, and say then whether the horrible sufferings I endure have not the appearance of magic. I have explained the circumstances surrounding that snake-witch and myself, that you may understand what cause she has to hate me."
"Then remove the cause, and cease to persecute her and her daughter," I said coldly.
He looked at me uneasily, his face quivering with some hidden pain.
"I cannot," he answered. "Sir, at my age, love is more than a passion—it is a madness. My love for the girl and my hate for the mother are in my blood. If I part with them, I part with life. More over, I have a rival. Deliberately and firmly, I mean the girl to die rather than yield her to a rival. So much for my love; as for my hate, it is generations old. I feel the anger and the sorrow of centuries standing between that woman and me."
"May I ask her name?" I said.
"Yes; what can her name matter? She is called Morven. She and her husband were cousins; they are Breton, like myself, but they have always lived in India or in Paris. The girl is named Sibylle, like her mother. There is an old-world legend in our family of a Sibylle Morven. It is strange how these things live so long."
"And repeat themselves," I returned. "There are defenceless women and cowardly men in all ages."
"I thought you a man of the world," said my patient, laughing scornfully. "Chivalry for women nowadays is out of date indeed."
Not choosing to tell him that in my thoughts he seemed a scoundrel, I rose; and he, fancying I wearied and would quit him, laid his hand upon me; it was cold as ice.
"Do not leave me," he said. "I am in danger at this hour of death. I speak French but ill, and I sent for you, knowing you the only Englishman of your profession in this accursed city. Sir, exert your skill, and save me if you can."
His last words were scarce intelligible, his eyes drooped, his head sank forward in strange lethargy, his hand grew colder, his pulse more feeble.
Alarmed, I roused him hastily, and raised him from the chair. As he started up he gazed at me a moment in a bewildered way; then seized my arm.
"Walk with me," he murmured; "you see even my great strength is failing."
Then, with wonderful power of will, he exerted all his force; and, clinging to my arm, he commenced hurriedly to pace the room.
"Explain to me your feelings, your pain," I cried eagerly; "the exertion of speech and thought will conquer this heaviness."
With a supreme effort, as he trailed his lagging limbs, and as his drooping head fell again and again on his panting chest, he gasped forth these words:
"I am poisoned—snake-poisoned; the venom is in my veins. Sir, have you ever seen a man bitten by a serpent? No? Then I have, and all his symptoms are like mine: this feebleness of pulse, this nausea and heaviness, this coldness at the heart, this longing to lapse into insensibility. Rouse me; I sink again; walk faster; do not let me pause a moment. On, on! faster, faster! the venom rises to my brain. Ah, hold me! I am falling."
He sank forward heavily, and I saw by his dilated eyes and laboured chest that insensibility was swiftly overcoming his strength. Certainly these symptoms were strangely like those caused by snake-bite; and, superstitious as it may seem, I tried the remedies used in cases of serpent-poisoning. But the man sank deeper and deeper into lethargy, the heavy insensibility that crept over him baffling every effort made to rouse him.
Hopeless at last of saving his life, I went to the window just as the dawn came stealing in, and drew aside the blind for fresher light. Then I started back in horror, for, pressed against the glass, I saw the face of the snake-woman. It was but a momentary vision; for as my eye flashed on hers she grew gray and vapoury, and faded gently down, downwards to the ground; and in the dim chilly light I fancied I saw, creeping stealthily away between the dew-laden shrubs, a long black viper.
Looking round upon the Count, I found him breathing again; and as he lay back in his attendant's arms, he opened his eyes and gazed at me languidly.
"I am better," he said in a faint voice. "No, do not take me near the window; the poison comes that way. Draw me to the fire; I am cold."
We drew him to the hearth, and his servant François went down upon his knees and blew at the smouldering embers.
"Fetch a fagot quickly," I cried, "and make a brisk blaze here. The Count is surely recovering."
His breathing was less heavy, his face less deathly, the cold perspiration on his hands less clammy.
"Courage!" I whispered; "you are better."
The man meanwhile opened a glass-door leading to a veranda, and from a large pile of fagots, lying there in slovenly Breton fashion, he brought two, and laid them by the hearth. As he did this, the Count shivered from head to foot.
"Close the door!" I said angrily; "the cold spring wind is killing."
Then François unbound a fagot, and soon a crisp bright blaze sparkled on the hearth; but its warmth came vainly, and too late for the Count. He sank into a death-lethargy, and his limbs grew cold as ice. As I chafed his hands, and François fed the fire, he suddenly gave a scream of horror, and clutched me by the arm. Turning, I saw, coiled within the second fagot, just unbound, a long black snake striped with a dull yellow. Regardless of our presence, it sat absorbed, with small malignant eyes fixed on the Count's face, watching his death throes in cold malice. Sickening at the sight, I seized a log with which to strike the creature, but something, I know not what, withheld my hand, and François took the block from my quivering fingers, and hurled it at the viper. It saw the danger, and, for one dreadful instant, it turned and looked on me, while there came into my eyes the shadow of a woman, with the anguish of a bitter reproach on her face. At this moment the clock upon the mantel struck five. Then the wood fell, and with head crushed out of shape and horrible, the snake lay writhing. A shudder ran through all my veins, as though a human being had died; and not caring to look again on the bleeding worm—for it was an ugly sight—I bent over the Count's white face. It was very white and cold, and I bent lower still and touched his lips, and listened at his heart. But life's pulse was still with him for ever.
"He is dead, François," I said softly. "Call in the women; their hands take us at birth, their hands straighten us at death; let them do their last for him now."
The poor man wept—the Bretons have kindly hearts—and I left him leaning with wrung hands over his dead master.
"Now who is guilty of this man's death?" I said, as I passed through the desolate garden. "Is it Sibylle Morven now alive in the flesh? or is it the malignant spirit of Sibylle Morven, whose daughter died in the dungeon of Pencoet?"
As I drove through the avenue, a young man started out from beneath the chestnut-trees, and held up his hand to me imploringly.
"O sir!" he cried eagerly, "I have stood here watching for you these two hours. Will you take pity on me? Will you tell me how she is?"
"Do you allude to Mademoiselle Morven?" I asked. "Yes, sir, yes. Is she better? Is there any hope?"
"There is plenty of hope. If I confess to you my convictions, I should say she is saved."
"Thank heaven!" ejaculated the stranger, covering his eyes for a moment with his hand.
So this is the dead Count's rival, I thought. And looking in his face, I saw his own features—young, candid, generous, yet the very glass and image of himself. Now I could understand Sibylle's horror at his love. Her heart was his son's.
"Your name is certainly De Quèrebréon," I said, speaking to the young man gently.
"Yes, but my father and I are strangers to each other," he answered. "He broke his wife's heart after three years' marriage, and my sister and I were brought up by my mother's family."
"And your sister is dead?" I observed.
"Yes, she died in India," he said, surprised. "Sir, may I venture to ask a favour?"
"Let me know what the favour is," I answered. "Will you give a letter to Mademoiselle Morven for me?"
"I cannot undertake to do that," I said gravely.
"But if you knew all the circumstances, you would not refuse me," he returned.
Now I wanted to break to him his father's death; so I said quietly, "If we are to have long explanations, take a seat here beside me, and tell me the story as I drive homewards."
Upon this he sprang into the carriage; and as we went on he explained, in a few words, that he had loved Mademoiselle Morven for two years, and had received her father's sanction to his addresses; but Madame had taken an unaccountable aversion to him, and refused him even a sight of her daughter.
"I assure you on my honour, sir," he said, "there was not originally the slightest cause for the unreasonable hatred with which she regards me. But when my father unhappily saw and loved her daughter, and cruelly persecuted her husband into bankruptcy and death, I felt there was indeed a reason for her dislike, and, as much as my affection for Sibylle would permit me, I abstained from troubling her. I believe she hid in this old city as much to avoid me as to escape from my father's cruel vengeance."
"And did the Count know his own son was his rival?" I asked.
"Yes; and the fact increased his fury and his love to a sort of madness. His servant tells me he has nightly attacks which bear every symptom of insanity. He fancies himself snake bitten, I hear."
I was silent, framing in my own mind the words in which I should tell him the Count had fallen dead before the horrors of his own imagination; but at this instant the roar of many voices reached us, and we saw a great crowd rushing madly onwards.
We were within the gates of the old city now, and I forced my horse into a gallop, and, quickly coming up with the crowd, we inquired the cause of the uproar.
"Ah, here is a doctor!" cried the mob in answer. "This way, monsieur; for the love of heaven, this way! There is an accident—a house has fallen, and we know not who is crushed in the ruins."
The excited crowd seized the reins, and drew my horse and carriage through the midst of them, as they poured onwards to the entry of that narrow street which I had visited the morning before. Here another crowd met us, and a great cloud of dust hovered in the air.
"Make way!" cried many voices, "make way for the doctor, who comes to help the wounded!"
Young De Quèrebréon was pale as death when he leaped from the vehicle, I following him, and together we rushed through the surging swaying mob, till we reached a pile of ruins. The old house had fallen.
The carved gabled front, the casements, the ancient doorway, the gothic chimneys, lay in heaps; but the walls towards the garden stood, and the great beams of the roof resting on them upheld a mass of trembling ruins, which threatened every moment to collapse. The fall of the front wall exposed a portion of the staircase still standing, and many a desolate empty room crumbling downwards before our gaze.
"There are women in the house. Save them!" I cried.
"Which was her room?" asked the young man by my side in a low calm voice. "You saw her yesterday. Tell me quickly!"
I pointed to the wall which still stood, and the window overlooking the garden. In a moment he was lost amid the dust, and, rushing over the fallen stones and rubbish, we saw him emerge on the tottering staircase, which he mounted swiftly. I and others followed. It is useless to tell of the dangers and the difficulties in the way; enough that we succeeded, and reached the girl's chamber safely.
One end of a great beam from the ceiling above lay across the room; beneath it, crushed and motionless, was the body of Madame Morven. Against the sound wall stood the high bed untouched, the upper portion of the beam, still fixed in its place, having saved it from destruction by forming a sort of arch, beneath which, though covered with dust and rubbish, it remained secure. On this bed lay the pale form of the young Sibylle Morven. She was insensible. Her lover caught her in his arms, and bore her away in safety, almost before I had gained one sight of her beautiful face.
The floor trembled beneath my tread; but I remained a moment longer, to see if Madame Morven was indeed past all human help. I knelt down by her side, and perceived with horror that her head and face were crushed out of all semblance of humanity. Her death must have been instantaneous. Sick and shuddering, I hurried to the window, and descended the ladder fetched by kindly hands for my deliverance. The staircase was now impassable, and other portions of the ruin continued to fall, rendering proximity to the crumbling mass dangerous.
I found Mademoiselle Morven reclining on a bed of cloaks and mantles laid upon the grass in the garden. Her lover was bending over her anxiously.
"I am not hurt," she said, on seeing me. "Is my mother saved?"
Then reading the truth in my eyes, she burst into sudden weeping, and hid her face in a passion of grief. She was carried to my house, and for many days she kept her room through sorrow and the great shock of terror she had received; but the strange fever from which she suffered when I first saw her had left her for ever.
This is the story she told of her danger and deliverance:
"I had been very ill,"she said,"during the early part of that night, and had had the wildest strangest dreams that fever can bring. These haunted and tortured me horribly, but after midnight I grew calm and slept. I awoke just before the dawn, and saw my mother sitting at some distance from my bed. She seemed in a strange dead sleep; for I spoke to her twice, and she gave me no reply. I longed to tell her that my fever was gone, and the horror in my mind had vanished; but seeing how weary she was with long watching, I would not rouse her. Then I fell asleep again, and dreamed I saw a hand threatening my mother; but that drew back, and a man stepped forward with hatred in his looks and flung upon her a heavy log of wood. It struck her in the face. I shrieked; and in my dream I seemed to hear our little clock just chiming five; and at the instant it ceased, a noise like thunder shook the air. I started up, and as the walls trem bled around me, I saw the sudden daylight vanish in black darkness, and a cloud of suffocating dust filled the room. I knew no more till I felt your arms around me, Gabriel."
Gabriel de Quèrebréon, François, and I, were the only mourners at the Count's funeral. He and the hooded woman were buried on the same day, and their coffins lay side by side in the ancient church as the priests chanted the service over them. As for the Count, I have said he had three mourners, but in truth he had but one, for his poor honest Breton servant was the only one who gave him a tear.
"I shall take him into my service," said Gabriel to me, as he noted the man's grief.
The Count had died rich, and his son was his sole heir; so there was no hindrance now—when Sibylle's mourning should be over—to her marriage with the man she had loved so long.
A year ago I was a visitor at the house of Monsieur and Madame de Quèrebréon at Paris.
"Where is François?" I said one day. "I miss his honest Breton face."
"I have been obliged to pension him off," returned my host, a little gravely. "Sibylle could not endure him."
"It was not that I disliked him," said the young wife with a shudder, "but he had the face of the man I saw in my dream—the man who killed my mother."
The above story is in the public domain and can be copied or distributed freely. Credit to this site appreciated, but not necessary.