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  • 1863
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you were in infancy; how your little rosy fingers used to play with and pull my long mustache–which was black then, my dear–when I leaned over to kiss you in your cradle–recalling all your pretty, engaging little baby tricks, remembering how fond and proud I was of you, and grieving over the loss that I seemed to feel more and more acutely as the years went on. The birth of my son only made me long still more intensely for you, instead of consoling me for your loss, or banishing you from my memory, and when I saw him decked with rich laces and ribbons, like a royal babe, and playing with his jewelled rattle, I would think with an aching heart that perhaps at that very moment my dear little daughter was suffering from cold and hunger, or the unkind treatment of those who had her in charge. Then I regretted deeply that I had not taken you away from your mother in the very beginning, and had you brought up as my daughter should be–but when you were born I did not dream of our parting. As years rolled on new anxieties tortured me. I knew that you would be beautiful, and how much you would have to suffer from the dissolute men who hover about all young and pretty actresses–my blood would boil as I thought of the insults and affronts to which you might be subjected, and from which I was powerless to shield you–no words can tell what I suffered. Affecting a taste for the theatre that I did not possess, I never let an opportunity pass to see every company of players that I could hear of–hoping to find you at last among them. But although I saw numberless young actresses, about your age, not one of them could have been you, my dear child–of that I was sure. So at last
I abandoned the hope of finding my longlost daughter, though it was a bitter trial to feel that I must do so. The princess, my wife, had died three years after our marriage, leaving me only one child–Vallombreuse–whose ungovernable disposition has always given me much trouble and anxiety. A few days ago, at Saint Germain, I heard some of the courtiers speak in terms of high praise of Herode’s troupe, and what they said made me determine to go and see one of their representations without delay, while my heart beat high with a new hope–for they especially lauded a young actress, called Isabelle; whose graceful, modest, high-bred air they declared to be irresistible, and her acting everything that could be desired–adding that she was as virtuous as she was beautiful, and that the boldest libertines respected her immaculate purity. Deeply agitated by a secret presentiment, I hastened back to Paris, and went to the theatre that very night. There I saw you, my darling, and though it would seem to be impossible for even a father’s eye to recognise, in the beautiful young woman of twenty, the babe that he had kissed in its cradle, and had never beheld since, still I knew you instantly–the very moment you came in sight–and I perceived, with a heart swelling with happiness and thankfulness, that you were all that I could wish. Moreover, I recognised the face of an old actor, who had been I knew in the troupe that Cornelia joined when she fled from Paris, and I resolved to address myself first to him; so as not to startle you by too abrupt a disclosure of my claims upon you. But when I sent the next morning to the hotel in the Rue Dauphine, I learned that Herode’s troupe had just gone to give a representation at a chateau in the environs of Paris, and would be absent three days. I should have endeavoured to wait patiently for their return, had not a brave fellow, who used to be in my service, and has my interest at heart, come to inform me that the Duke of Vallombreuse, being madly in love with a young actress named Isabelle, who resisted his suit with the utmost firmness and determination, had arranged to gain forcible possession of her in the course of the day’s journey–the expedition into the country being gotten up for that express purpose–that he had a band of hired ruffians engaged to carry out his nefarious purpose and bring his unhappy victim to this chateau–and that he had come to warn me, fearing lest serious consequences should ensue to my son, as the young actress would be accompanied by brave and faithful friends, who were armed, and would defend her to the death. This terrible news threw me into a frightful state of anxiety and excitement. Feeling sure, as I did, that you were my own daughter, I shuddered at the thought of the horrible crime that I might not be in time to prevent, and without one moment’s delay set out for this place– suffering such agony by the way as I do not like even to think of. You were already delivered from danger when I arrived, as you know, and without having suffered anything beyond the alarm and dread–which must have been terrible indeed, my poor child! And then, the amethyst ring on your finger confirmed, past any possibility of doubt, what my heart had told me, when first my eyes beheld you in the theatre.”

“I pray you to believe, dear lord and father,” answered Isabelle, “that I have never accused you of anything, nor considered myself neglected. Accustomed from my infancy to the roving life of the troupe I was with, I neither knew nor dreamed of any other. The little knowledge that I had of the world made me realize that I should be wrong in wishing to force myself upon an illustrious family, obliged doubtless by powerful reasons, of which I knew nothing, to leave me in obscurity. The confused remembrance I had of my origin sometimes inspired me–when I was very young–with a certain pride, and I would say to myself, when I noticed the disdainful air with which great ladies looked down upon us poor actresses, I also am of noble birth. But I outgrew those fancies, and only preserved an invincible self-respect, which I have always cherished. Nothing in the world would have induced me to dishonour the illustrious blood that flows in my veins. The disgraceful license of the coulisses, and the loathsome gallantries lavished upon all actresses, even those who are not comely, disgusted me from the first, and I have lived in the theatre almost as if in a convent. The good old pedant has been like a watchful father to me, and as for Herode, he would have severely chastised any one who dared to touch me with the tip of his finger, or even to pronounce a vulgar word in my presence. Although they are only obscure actors, they are very honourable, worthy men, and I trust you will he good enough to help them if they ever find themselves in need of assistance. I owe it partly to them that I can lift my forehead for your kiss without a blush of shame, and proudly declare myself worthy, so far as purity is concerned, to be your daughter. My only regret is to have been the innocent cause of the misfortune that has overtaken the duke, your son. I could have wished to enter your family, my dear father, under more favourable auspices.”

“You have nothing to reproach yourself with, my sweet child, for you could not divine these mysteries, which have been suddenly disclosed by a combination of circumstances that would be considered romantic and improbable, even in a novel; and my joy at finding you as worthy in every way to be my beloved and honoured daughter, as if you had not lived amid all the dangers of such a career, makes up for the pain and anxiety caused by the illness and danger of my son. Whether he lives or dies, I shall never for one moment blame you for anything in connection with his misfortune. In any event, it was your virtue and courage that saved him from being guilty of a crime that I shudder to contemplate. And now, tell me, who was the handsome young man among your liberators who seemed to direct the attack, and who wounded Vallombreuse? An actor doubtless, though it appeared to me that he had a very noble bearing, and magnificent courage.”

“Yes, my dear father,” Isabelle replied, with a most lovely and becoming blush, “he is an actor, a member of our troupe; but if I may venture to betray his secret, which is already known to the Duke of Vallombreuse, I will tell you that the so-called Captain Fracasse conceals under his mask a noble countenance, as indeed you already know, and under his theatrical pseudonym, the name of an illustrious family.”

“True!” rejoined the prince, “I have heard something about that already. It would certainly have been astonishing if an ordinary, low-born actor had ventured upon so bold and rash a course as running counter to a Duke of Vallombreuse, and actually entering into a combat with him; it needs noble blood for such daring acts. Only a gentleman can conquer a gentleman, just as a diamond can only be cut by a diamond.”

The lofty pride of the aged prince found much consolation in the knowledge that his son had not been attacked and wounded by an adversary of low origin; there was nothing compromising in a duel between equals, and he drew a deep breath of relief at thought of it.

“And pray, what is the real name of this valiant champion?” smilingly asked the prince, with a roguish twinkle in his dark eyes–“this dauntless knight, and brave defender of innocence and purity!”

“He is the Baron de Sigognac,” Isabelle replied blushingly, with a slight trembling perceptible in her sweet, low voice. “I reveal his name fearlessly to you, my dear father, for you are both too just and too generous to visit upon his head the disastrous consequences of a victory that he deplores.”

“De Sigognac?” said the prince. “I thought that ancient and illustrious family was extinct. Is he not from Gascony?”

“Yes; his home is in the neighbourhood of Dax.”

“Exactly–and the de Sigognacs have an appropriate coat of arms– three golden storks on an azure field. Yes, it is as I said, an ancient and illustrious family–one of the oldest and most honourable in France. Paramede de Sigognac figured gloriously in the first crusade. A Raimbaud de Sigognac, the father of this young man without doubt, was the devoted friend and companion of Henri IV, in his youth, but was not often seen at court in later years. it was said that he was embarrassed financially, I remember.”

“So much so, that when our troupe sought refuge of a stormy night under his roof, we found his son living in a half ruined chateau, haunted by bats and owls, where his youth was passing in sadness and misery. We persuaded him to come away with us, fearing that he would die there of starvation and melancholy–but I never saw misfortune so bravely borne.”

“Poverty is no disgrace,” said the prince, “and any noble house that has preserved its honour unstained may rise again from its ruins to its ancient height of glory and renown. But why did not the young baron apply to some of his father’s old friends in his distress? or lay his case before the king, who is the natural refuge of all loyal gentlemen under such circumstances?”

“Misfortunes such as his are apt to breed timidity, even with the bravest,” Isabelle replied, “and pride deters many a man from betraying his misery to the world. When the Baron de Sigognac consented to accompany us to Paris, he hoped to find some opportunity there to retrieve his fallen fortunes; but it has not presented itself. In order not to be an expense to the troupe, he generously and nobly insisted upon taking the place of one of the actors, who died on the way, and who was a great loss to us. As he could appear upon the stage always masked, he surely did not compromise his dignity by it.”

“Under this theatrical disguise, I think that, without being a sorcerer, I can detect a little bit of romance, eh?” said the prince, with a mischievous smile. “But I will not inquire too closely; I know how good and true you are well enough not to take alarm at any respectful tribute paid to your charms. I have not been with you long enough yet as a father, my sweet child, to venture upon sermonizing.”

As he paused, Isabelle raised her lovely eyes, in which shone the purest innocence and the most perfect loyalty, to his, and met his questioning gaze unflinchingly. The rosy flush which the first mention of de Sigognac’s name had called up was gone, and her countenance showed no faintest sign of embarrassment or shame. In her pure heart the most searching looks of a father, of God himself, could have found nothing to condemn. Just at this point the doctor’s assistant was announced, who brought a most favourable report from the sick-room. He was charged to tell the prince that his son’s condition was eminently satisfactory–a marked change for the better having taken place; and that Maitre Laurent considered the danger past–believing that his recovery was now only a question of time.

A few days later, Vallombreuse, propped up on his pillows, received a visit from his faithful and devoted friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc, whom he had not been permitted to see earlier. The, prince was sitting by the bedside, affectionately watching every flitting expression on his son’s face, which was pathetically thin and pale, but handsomer than ever; because the old haughty, fierce look had vanished, and a soft light, that had never been in them before, shone in his beautiful eyes, whereat his father’s heart rejoiced exceedingly. Isabelle stood at the other side of the bed, and the young duke had clasped his thin, startlingly white fingers round her hand. As he was forbidden to speak, save in monosyllables–because of his injured lung–he took this means of testifying his sympathy with her, who had been the involuntary cause of his being wounded and in danger of losing his life, and thus made her understand that he cherished no resentments. The affectionate brother had replaced the fiery lover, and his illness, in calming his ardent passion, had contributed not a little to make the transition a less difficult one than it could possibly have been otherwise. Isabelle was now for him really and only the Comtesse de Lineuil, his dear sister. He nodded in a friendly way to Vidalinc, and disengaged his hand for a moment from Isabelle’s to give it to him–it was all that the doctor would allow–but his eyes were eloquent enough to make up for his enforced silence.

In the course of a few weeks, Vallombreuse, who had gained strength rapidly, was able to leave his bed and recline upon a lounge near the open window; so as to enjoy the mild, delightful air of spring, that brought colour to his cheeks and light to his eyes. Isabelle was often with him, and read aloud for hours together to entertain him; as Maitre Laurent’s orders were strict that he should not talk, even yet, any more than was actually necessary. One day, when Isabelle had finished a chapter in the volume from which she was reading to him, and was about to begin another, he interrupted her, and said, “My dear sister, that book is certainly very amusing, and the author a man of remarkable wit and talent; but I must confess that I prefer your charming conversation to your delightful reading. Do you know, I would not have believed it possible to gain so much, in losing all hope of what I desired more ardently than I had ever done anything in my whole life before. The brother is very much more kindly treated than the suitor–are you aware of that? You are as sweet and amiable to the one as you were severe and unapproachable to the other. I find in this calm, peaceful affection, charms that I had never dreamed of, and you reveal to me a new side of the feminine character, hitherto utterly unknown to me. Carried away by fiery passions, and irritated to madness by any opposition, I was like the wild huntsman of the ancient legend, who stopped for no obstacle, but rode recklessly over everything in his path. I looked upon whatever beautiful woman I was in pursuit of as my legitimate prey. I scouted the very idea of failure, and deemed myself irresistible. At the mention of virtue, I only shrugged my shoulders, and I think I may say, without too much conceit, to the only woman I ever pursued who did not yield to me, that I had reason not to put much faith in it. My mother died when I was a mere baby; you, my sweet sister, were not near me, and I have never known, until now, all the purity, tenderness, and sublime courage of which your sex is capable. I chanced to see you. An irresistible attraction, in which, perhaps, the unknown tie of blood had its influence, drew me to you, and for the first time in my life a feeling of respect and esteem mingled with my passion. Your character delighted me, even when you drove me to despair. I could not but secretly approve and admire the modest and courteous firmness with which you rejected my homage. The more decidedly you repulsed me, the more I felt that you were worthy of my adoration. Anger and admiration succeeded each other in my heart, and even in my most violent paroxysms of rage I always respected you. I descried the angel in the woman, and bowed to the ascendency of a celestial purity. Now I am happy and blessed indeed; for I have in you precisely what I needed, without knowing it–this pure affection, free from all earthly taint–unalterable–eternal. I possess at last the love of a soul.”

“Yes, my dear brother, it is yours,” Isabelle replied; “and it is a great source of happiness to me that I am able to assure you of it. You have in me a devoted sister and friend, who will love you doubly to make up for the years we have lost–above all, now that you have promised me to correct the faults that have so grieved and alarmed our dear father, and to exhibit only the good qualities of which YOU have plenty.”

“Oh! you little preacher,” cried Vallombreuse, with a bright, admiring smile; “how you take advantage of my weakness. However, it is perfectly true that I have been a dreadful monster, but I really do mean to do better in future–if not for love of virtue itself, at least to avoid seeing my charming sister put on a severe, disapproving air, at some atrocious escapade of mine. Still, I fear that I shall always be Folly, as you will be Reason.”

“If you will persist in paying me such high-flown compliments,” said Isabelle, with a little shrug of her pretty shoulders, “I shall certainly resume the reading, and you will have to listen to a long story that the corsair is just about to relate to the beautiful princess, his captive, in the cabin of his galley.”

“Oh, no! surely I do not deserve such a severe punishment as that. Even at the risk of appearing garrulous, I do so want to talk a little. That confounded doctor has kept me mute long enough in all conscience, and I am tired to death of having the seal of silence upon my lips, like a statue of Hippocrates.”

“But I am afraid you may do yourself harm; remember that your wound is scarcely healed yet, and the injured lung is still very irritable. Maitre Laurent laid such stress upon my reading to you, so that you should keep quiet, and give your chest a good chance to get strong and well again.”

“Maitre Laurent doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and only wants to prolong his own importance to me. My lungs work as well as ever they did. I feel perfectly myself again, and I’ve a great mind to order my horse and go for a canter in the forest.”

“You had better talk than do such a wildly imprudent thing as that; it is certainly less dangerous.”

“I shall very soon be about again, my sweet little sister, and then I shall have the pleasure of introducing you into the society suitable to your rank–where your incomparable grace and beauty will create a sensation, and bring crowds of adorers to your feet. From among them you will be able to select a husband, eh?” “I can have no desire to do anything of that kind, Vallombreuse, and pray do not think this the foolish declaration of a girl who would be very sorry to be taken at her word. I am entirely in earnest, I do assure you. I have bestowed my hand so often in the last act of the pieces I have played that I am in no hurry to do it in reality. I do not wish for anything better than to remain quietly here with the prince and yourself.”

“But, my dear girl, a father and brother will not always content you–do not think it! Such affection cannot satisfy the demands of the heart forever.”

“It will be enough for me, however, and if some day they fail me, I can take refuge in a convent.”

“Heaven forbid! that would be carrying austerity too far indeed. I pray you never to mention it again, if you have any regard for my peace of mind. And now tell me, my sweet little sister, what do you think of my dear friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc? does not he seem to be possessed of every qualification necessary to make a good husband?”

“Doubtless, and the woman that he marries will have a right to consider herself fortunate but however charming and desirable your friend may be, my dear Vallombreuse, _I_ shall never be that woman.”

“Well, let him pass, then–but tell me what you think of the Marquis de l’Estang, who came to see me the other day, and gazed spell-bound at my lovely sister all the time he was here. He was so overwhelmed by your surpassing grace, so dazzled by your exquisite beauty, that he was struck dumb, and when he tried to pay you pretty compliments, did nothing but stammer and blush. Aside from this timidity, which made him appear to great disadvantage, and which your ladyship should readily excuse, since you yourself were the cause of it, the marquis is an accomplished and estimable gentleman. He is handsome, young, of high birth and great wealth. He would do capitally for my fair sister, and is sure to address himself to the prince–if indeed be has not already done so–as an aspirant to the honour of an alliance with her.”

“As I have the honour of belonging to this illustrious family,” said Isabelle a little impatiently, for she was exceedingly annoyed by this banter, “too much humility would not become me, therefore I will not say that I consider myself unworthy of such an alliance; but if the Marquis de l’Estang should ask my hand of my father, I would refuse him. I have told you, my dear brother, more than once, that I do not wish to marry–and you know it too–so pray don’t tease me any more about it.”

“Oh! what a fierce, determined little woman is this fair sister of mine. Diana herself was not more inaccessible, in the forests and valleys of Haemus–yet, if the naughty mythological stories may be believed, she did at last smile upon a certain Endymion. You are vexed, because I casually propose some suitable candidates for the honour of your hand; but you need not be, for, if THEY do not please you, we will hunt up one who will.”

“I am not vexed, my dear brother, but you are certainly talking far too much for an invalid, and I shall tell Maitre, Laurent to reprimand you, or not permit you to have the promised bit of fowl for your supper.”

“Oh! if that’s the case I will desist at once,” said Vallombreuse, with a droll air of submission, “for I’m as hungry as an ogre–but rest assured of one thing, my charming sister: No one shall select your husband but myself.”

To put an end to this teasing, Isabelle began to read the corsair’s long story, without paying any attention to the indignant protests that were made, and Vallombreuse, to revenge himself, finally closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep; which feigned slumber soon became real, and Isabelle, perceiving that it was so, put aside her book and quietly stole away.

This conversation, in which, under all his mischievous banter, the duke seemed to have a definite and serious purpose in view, worried Isabelle very much, in spite of her efforts to banish it from her mind. Could it be that Vallombreuse was nursing a secret resentment against de Sigognac? He had never once spoken his name, or referred to him in any way, since he was wounded by him; and was he trying to place an insurmountable barrier between his sister and the baron, by bringing about her marriage with another? or was he simply trying to find out whether the actress transformed to a countess, had changed in sentiments as well as in rank? Isabelle could not answer these questions satisfactorily to herself. As she was the duke’s sister, of course the rivalry between him and de Sigognac could no longer exist; but, on the other hand, it was difficult to imagine that such a haughty, vindictive character as the young duke’s could have forgotten, or forgiven, the ignominy of his first defeat at the baron’s hands, and still less of the second more disastrous encounter. Although their relative positions were changed, Vallombreuse, in his heart, would doubtless always hate de Sigognac–even if he had magnanimity enough to forgive him, it could scarcely be expected that he should also love him, and be willing to welcome him as a member of his family. No, all hope of such a reconciliation must be abandoned. Besides, she feared that the prince, her father, would never be able to regard with favour the man who had imperilled the life of his only son. These sad thoughts threw poor Isabelle into a profound melancholy, which she in vain endeavoured to shake off. As long as she considered that her position as an actress would be an obstacle to de Sigognac, she had resolutely repelled the idea of a marriage with him, but now that an unhoped-for, undreamed-of stroke of destiny had heaped upon her all the good things that heart could desire, she would have loved to reward, with the gift of her hand and fortune, the faithful lover who had addressed her when she was poor and lowly–it seemed an actual meanness, to her generous spirit, not to share her prosperity with the devoted companion of her misery. But all that she could do was to be faithful to him–for she dared not say a word in his favour, either to the prince or to Vallombreuse.

Very soon the young duke was well enough to join his father and sister at meals, and he manifested such respectful and affectionate deference to the prince, and such an ingenuous and delicate tenderness towards Isabelle, that it was evident he had, in spite of his apparent frivolity, a mind and character very superior to what one would have expected to find in such a licentious, ungovernable youth as he had been, and which gave promise of an honourable and useful manhood. Isabelle took her part modestly–but with a very sweet dignity, that sat well upon her–in the conversation at the table, and in the salon, and her remarks were so to the point, so witty, and so apropos, that the prince was astonished as well as charmed, and grew daily more proud of and devoted to his new treasure; finding a happiness and satisfaction he had longed for all his life in the affection and devotion of his children.

At last Vallombreuse was pronounced well enough to mount his horse, and go for a ride in the forest–which he had long been sighing for–and Isabelle gladly consented to bear him company. They looked a wonderfully handsome pair, as they rode leisurely through the leafy arcades. But there was one very marked difference between them.

The young man’s countenance was radiant with happiness and smiles, but the girl’s face was clouded over with an abiding melancholy. Occasionally her brother’s lively sallies would bring a faint smile to her sweet lips, but they fell back immediately into the mournful droop that had become habitual with them. Vallombreuse apparently did not perceive it–though in reality he was well aware of it, and of its cause–and was full of fun and frolic.

“Oh! what a delicious thing it is to live,” he cried, “yet how seldom we think of the exquisite enjoyment there is in the simple act of breathing,” and he drew a long, deep breath, as if he never could get enough of the soft, balmy air. “The trees surely were never so green before, the sky so blue, or the flowers so fragrant. I feet as if I had been born into the world only yesterday, and was looking upon nature for the first time to-day. I never appreciated it before. When I remember that I might even now be lying, stiff and stark, under a fine marble monument, and that instead of that I am riding through an elysium, beside my darling sister, who has really learned to love me, I am too divinely happy. I do not even feel my wound any more. I don’t believe that I ever was wounded. And now for a gallop, for I’m sure that our good father is wearying for us at home.”

In spite of Isabelle’s remonstrances he put spurs to his horse, and she could not restrain hers when its companion bounded forward, so off they went at a swift pace, and never drew rein until they reached the chateau. As he lifted his sister down from her saddle, Vallombreuse said, “Now, after to-day’s achievement, I can surely be treated like a big boy, and get permission to go out by myself.”

“What! you want to go away and leave us already? and scarcely well yet, you bad boy!”

“Even so, my sweet sister; I want to make a little journey that will take several days,” said Vallombreuse negligently.

Accordingly, the very next morning he departed, after having taken an affectionate leave of the prince, his father; who did not oppose his going, as Isabelle had confidently expected, but seemed, on the contrary, to approve of it heartily. After receiving many charges to be careful and prudent, from his sister, which he dutifully promised to remember and obey, the young duke bade her good-bye also, and said, in a mysterious, yet most significant way,

“Au revoir, my sweet little sister, you will be pleased with what I am about to do.” And Isabelle sought in vain for the key to the enigma.

CHAPTER XIX. NETTLES AND COBWEBS

The worthy tyrant’s advice was sensible and good, and de Sigognac resolved to follow it without delay. Since Isabelle’s departure, no attraction existed for him in the troupe, and he was very glad of a valid pretext for quitting it; though he could not leave his humble friends without some regrets. It was necessary that he should disappear for a while–plunge into obscurity, until the excitement consequent upon the violent death of the young Duke of Vallombreuse should be forgotten in some new tragedy in real life.

So, after bidding farewell to the worthy comedians, who had shown him so much kindness, he departed from the gay capital–mounted on a stout pony, and with a tolerably well-filled purse–his share of the receipts of the troupe, which he had fairly earned. By easy stages he travelled slowly towards his own ruined chateau. After the storm the bird flies home to its nest, no matter how ragged and torn it may be. It was the only refuge open to him, and in the midst of his despondency he felt a sort of sad pleasure at the thought of returning to his ancestral home– desolate and forlorn as it was–where it would have been better, perhaps, for him to have quietly remained–for his fortunes were not improved, and this last crowning disaster had been ruinous to all his hopes and prospects of happiness.

“Ah, well!” said he to himself, sorrowfully, as he jogged slowly on,” it was predestined that I should die of hunger and ennui within those crumbling walls, and under my poor, dilapidated, old roof, that lets the rain run through it like a huge sieve. No one can escape his destiny, and I shall accomplish mine. I am doomed to be the last de Sigognac.”

Then came visions of what might have been, that made the sad present seem even darker by contrast; and his burden was well-nigh too heavy for him to bear, when he remembered all Isabelle’s goodness and loveliness–now lost to him forever. No wonder that his eyes were often wet with tears, and that there was no brightness even in the sunshine for him.

It is needless to describe in detail a journey that lasted twenty days, and was not marked by any remarkable incidents or adventures. It is enough to say that one fine evening de Sigognac saw from afar the lofty towers of his ancient chateau, illuminated by the setting sun, and shining out in bold relief against the soft purple of the evening sky; whilst one of the few remaining casements had caught the fiery sunset glow, and looked like a great carbuncle set in the fine facade of the stately old castle. This sight aroused a strange tenderness and agitation in the young baron’s breast. It was true that he had suffered long and acutely in that dreary mansion, yet after all it was very dear to him–far more than he knew before he had quitted it–and he was deeply moved at seeing it again. In a few moments more the glorious god of day had sunk behind the western horizon, and the chateau seemed to retreat, until it became scarcely perceptible as the light faded, forming only a vague, gray blot in the distance as the gloaming succeeded to the glow. But de Sigognac knew every step of the way perfectly, and soon turned from the highway into the neglected, grass-grown road that led to the chateau. In the profound stillness, which seemed wonderfully peaceful and pleasant to him, he fancied that he could distinguish the distant barking of a dog, and that it sounded like Miraut. He stopped to listen; yes, there could be no doubt about it, and it was approaching. The baron gave a clear, melodious whistle–a signal well known of old to Miraut-and in a few moments the faithful dog, running as fast as his poor old legs could carry him, burst through a break in the hedge–panting, barking, almost sobbing for joy. He strove to jump up on the horse’s neck to get at his beloved master; he was beside himself with delight, and manifested it in the most frantic manner, whilst de Sigognac bent down to pat his head and try to quiet his wild transports. After bearing his master company a little way, Miraut set off again at full speed, to announce the good news to the others at the chateau–that is to say, to Pierre, Bayard, and Beelzebub–and bounding into the kitchen where the old servant ,was sitting, lost in sad thoughts, he barked in such a significant way that Pierre knew at once that something unusual had happened.

“Can it be possible that the young master is coming? said he aloud, rising, in compliance with Miraut’s wishes, who was pulling at the skirts of his coat, and imploring him ,with his eyes to bestir himself and follow him. As it was quite dark by this time, Pierre lighted a pine torch, which he carried with him, and as he turned into the road its ruddy light suddenly flashed upon de Sigognac and his horse.

“Is it really you, my lord?” cried Pierre, joyfully, as he caught sight of his young master; “Miraut had tried to tell me of your arrival in his own way before I left the house, but as I had not heard anything about your even thinking of coming, I feared that he might be mistaken. Welcome home to your own domain, my beloved master! We are overjoyed to see you.”

“Yes, my good Pierre, it is really I, and not my wraith. Miraut was not mistaken. Here I am again, if not richer than when I went away, at least all safe and sound. Come now, lead the way with your torch, and we will go into the chateau.”

Pierre, not without considerable difficulty, opened the great door, and the Baron de Sigognac rode slowly through the ancient portico, fantastically illuminated by the flaring torchlight, in which the three sculptured storks overhead seemed to be flapping their wings, as if in joyful salutation to the last representative of the family they had symbolized for so many centuries. Then a loud, impatient whinny, like the blast of a trumpet, was heard ringing out on the still night air, as Bayard, in his stable, caught the welcome sound of his master’s voice.

“Yes, yes, I hear you, my poor old Bayard,” cried de Sigognac, as he dismounted in the court, and threw the bridle to Pierre; “I am coming to say how d’you do,” and as he turned he stumbled over Beelzebub, who was trying to rub himself against his master’s legs, purring and mewing alternately to attract his attention. The baron stooped down, took the old black cat up in his arms, and tenderly caressed him as he advanced towards the stables; then put him down gently as he reached Bayard’s stall, and another touching scene of affectionate greeting was enacted. The poor old pony laid his head lovingly on his master’s shoulder, and actually tried to kick up his hind legs in a frisky way in honour of the great event; also, he received the horse that de Sigognac had ridden all the way from Paris, and which was put in the stall beside his own, very politely, and seemed pleased to have a companion in his solitary grandeur.

“And now that I have responded to the endearments of my dumb friends,” said the baron to Pierre, ” we will go into the kitchen, and examine into the condition of your larder. I had but a poor breakfast this morning, and no dinner at all, being anxious to push on and reach my journey’s end before nightfall. I am as hungry as a bear, and will be glad of anything, no matter what.”

“I have not much to put before you, my lord, and I fear that you will find it but sorry fare after the delicacies you must have been accustomed to in Paris; but though it will not be tempting, nor over savoury, it will at least satisfy your hunger.”

“That is all that can be required of any food,” answered de Sigognac, “and I am not as ungrateful as you seem to think, my good Pierre, to the frugal fare of my youth, which has certainly made me healthy, vigorous, and strong. Bring out what you have, and serve it as proudly as if it were of the choicest and daintiest; I will promise to do honour to it, for I am desperately hungry.”

The old servant bustled about joyously, and quickly had the table ready for his master; then stood behind his chair, while he ate and drank with a traveller’s appetite, as proudly erect as if he had been a grand major-domo waiting on a prince. According to the old custom, Miraut and Beelzebub, stationed on the right and on the left, watched their master’s every motion, and received a share of everything that was on the table. The great kitchen was lighted, not very brilliantly, by a torch, stuck in an iron bracket just inside the broad, open chimney, so that the smoke should escape through it and not fill the room, and the scene was so exactly a counterpart of the one described at the beginning of this narrative, that the baron, struck with the perfect resemblance, fancied that he must have been dreaming, and had never quitted his ancient chateau at all. Everything was precisely as he had left it, excepting that the nettles and weeds had grown a little taller, and the cobweb draperies a little more voluminous; all else was unchanged. Unconsciously lapsing into the old ways, de Sigognac fell into a deep reverie after he had finished his simple repast, which Pierre, as of old, respected, and even Miraut and Beelzebub did not venture to intrude upon. All that had occurred since he last sat at his own table passed in review before him, but seemed like adventures that he had read of, not actually participated in himself. It had all passed into the background. Captain Fracasse, already nearly obliterated, appeared like a pale spectre in the far distance; his combats with the Duke of Vallombreuse seemed equally unreal. In fine, everything that he had seen, done, and suffered, had sunk into shadowy vagueness; but his love for Isabelle had undergone no change; it had neither diminished nor grown cold; it was as passionate and all-absorbing as ever; it was his very life; yet rather like an aspiration of the soul than a real passion, since with it all he knew that the angelic being who was its object, and whom he worshipped from afar, could never, never be his. The wheels of his chariot, which for a brief space had turned aside into a new track, were back in the old rut again, and realizing that there could be no further escape from it possible for him, he gave way sullenly to a despairing, stolid sort of resignation, that he had no heart to struggle against, but yielded to it passively; blaming himself the while for having presumed to indulge in a season of bright hopes and delicious dreams. Why the devil should such an unlucky fellow as he had always been venture to aspire to happiness? It was all foolishness, and sure to end in bitter disappointment; but he had had his lesson now, and would be wiser for the future.

He sat perfectly motionless for a long time, plunged in a sad reverie–sunk in a species of torpor; but he roused himself at last, and perceiving that his faithful old follower’s eyes were fixed upon him, full of timid questioning that he did not venture to put into words, briefly related to him the principal incidents of his journey up to the capital, and his short stay there. When he graphically described his two duels with the Duke of Vallombreuse–the old man, filled with pride and delight at the proficiency of his beloved pupil, could not restrain his enthusiasm, and snatching up a stick gave vigorous illustrations of all the most salient points of the encounters as the baron delineated them, ending up with a wild flourish and a shout of triumph.

“Alas! my good Pierre,” said he, with a sigh, when quiet was restored, “you taught me how to use my sword only too well. My unfortunate victory has been my ruin, and has sent me back, hopeless and bereaved, to this poor old crumbling chateau of mine, where I am doomed to drag out the weary remainder of my days in sorrow and misery. I am peculiarly unhappy, in that my very triumphs have only made matters worse for me–it would have been better far for me, and for all, if I had been wounded, or even killed, in this last disastrous encounter, instead of my rival and enemy, the young Duke of Vallombreuse.”

“The de Sigognacs are never beaten,” said the old retainer loftily. “No matter what may come of it, I am glad, my dear young master, that you killed that insolent duke. The whole thing was conducted in strict accordance with the code of honour–what more could be desired? How could any valiant gentleman object to die gloriously, sword in hand, of a good, honest wound, fairly given? He should consider himself most fortunate.”

“Ah well! perhaps you are right–I will not dispute you,” said de Sigognac, smiling secretly at the old man’s philosophy. “But I am very tired, and would like to go to my own room now–will you light the lamp, my good Pierre, and lead the way?”

Pierre obeyed, and the baron, preceded by his old servant and followed by his old dog and cat, slowly ascended the ancient staircase. The quaint frescoes were gradually fading, growing ever paler and more indistinct, and there were new stains on the dull blue sky of the vaulted ceiling, where the rain and melting snow of winter storms had filtered through from the dilapidated roof. The ruinous condition of everything in and about the crumbling old chateau, to which de Sigognac had been perfectly accustomed before he quitted it, and taken as a matter of course, now struck him forcibly, and increased his dejection. He saw in it the sad and inevitable decadence of his race, and said to himself, “If these ancient walls had any pity for the last forlorn remnant of the family they have sheltered for centuries, they would fall in and bury me in their ruins.”

When he reached the landing at the head of the stairs he took the lamp from Pierre’s hand, bade him good-night and dismissed him–not willing that even his faithful old servant, who had cared for him ever since his birth, should witness his overpowering emotion. He walked slowly through the great banqueting hall, where the comedians had supped on that memorable night, and the remembrance of that gay scene rendered the present dreary solitude and silence more terrible than they had ever seemed to him before. The death-like stillness was only broken by the horrid gnawing of a rat somewhere in the wall, and the old family portraits glared down at him reproachfully, as he passed on below them with listless step and downcast eyes, oblivious of everything but his own deep misery, and his yearning for his lost Isabelle. As he came under the last portrait of all, that of his own sweet young mother, he suddenly looked up, and as his eyes rested on the calm, beautiful countenance–which had always worn such a pathetic, mournful expression that it used to make his heart ache to look at it in his boyish days–it seemed to smile upon him. He was startled for an instant, and then, thrilling with a strange, exquisite delight, and inspired with new hope and courage, he said in a low, earnest tone, “I accept my dear dead mother’s smile as a good omen–perhaps all may not be lost even yet–I will try to believe so.”

After a moment of silent thought, he went on into his own chamber, and put down the small lamp he carried, upon the little table, where still lay the stray volume of Ronsard’s poems that he had been reading–or rather trying to read–on that tempestuous night when the old pedant knocked at his door. And there was his bed, where Isabelle had slept–the very pillow upon which her dear head had rested. He trembled as he stood and gazed at it, and saw, as in a vision, the perfect form lying there again in his place, and the sweetest face in all the world turned towards him, with a tender smile parting the ripe red lips, a rosy flush mantling in the delicate cheeks, and warm lovelight shining in the deep blue eyes. He stood spell-bound–afraid to move or breathe–and worshipped the beautiful vision with all his soul and strength, as if it had been indeed divine–but alas! it faded as suddenly as it had appeared, and he felt as if the doors of heaven had been shut upon him. He hastily undressed, and threw himself down in the place where Isabelle had actually reposed; passionately kissed the pillow that had been hallowed by the touch of her head, and bedewed it with his tears. He lay long awake, thinking of the angelic being who loved him and whom he adored, whilst Beelzebub, rolled up in a ball, slept at his feet, and snored like the traditional cat of Mahomet, that lay and slumbered upon the prophet’s sleeve.

When morning came, de Sigognac was more impressed than ever with the dilapidated, crumbling condition of his ancient mansion. Daylight has no mercy upon old age and ruins; it reveals with cruel distinctness the wrinkles, gray hairs, poverty, misery, stains, fissures, dust and mould in which they abound; but more kindly night softens or conceals all defects, with its friendly shade, spreading over them its mantle of darkness. The rooms that used to seem so vast to their youthful owner had shrunken, and looked almost small and insignificant to him now, to his extreme surprise and mortification; but he soon regained the feeling of being really at home, and resumed his former way of life completely; just as one goes back to an old garment, that has for a time been laid aside, and replaced by a new one. His days were spent thus: early in the morning he went to say a short prayer in the half-ruined chapel where his ancestors lay, ere he repaired to the kitchen where his simple breakfast awaited him; that disposed of, he and old Pierre fetched their swords, and fought their friendly duels; after which he mounted Bayard, or the pony he had brought home with him, and went off for long, solitary rides over the desolate Landes. Returning late in the afternoon he sat, sad and silent as of old, until his frugal supper was prepared, partook of it, also in silence, and then retired to his lonely chamber, where he tried to read some musty old volume which he knew by heart already, or else flung himself on his bed–never without kissing the sacred pillow that had supported Isabelle’s beloved head–and lay there a prey to mournful and bitter meditations, until at last he could forget his troubles and grief in sleep. There was not a vestige left of the brilliant Captain Fracasse, nor of the high-spirited rival of the haughty Duke of Vallombreuse; the unfortunate young Baron de Sigognac had relapsed entirely into the sad-eyed, dejected master of Castle Misery.

One morning he sauntered listlessly down into the garden, which was wilder and more overgrown than ever–a tangled mass of weeds and brambles. He mechanically directed his steps towards the straggling eglantine that had had a little rose ready for each of the fair visitors that accompanied him when last he was there, and was surprised and delighted to see that it again held forth, as if for his acceptance, two lovely little blossoms that had come out to greet him, and upon each of which a dewdrop sparkled amid the frail, delicately tinted petals. He was strangely moved and touched by the sight of these tiny wild roses, which awoke such tender, precious memories, and he repeated to himself, as he had often done before, the words in which Isabelle had confessed to him that she had furtively kissed the little flower, his offering, and dropped a tear upon it, and then secretly given him her own heart in exchange for it–surely the sweetest words ever spoken on this earth. He gently plucked one of the dainty little roses, passionately inhaled its delicate fragrance and pressed a kiss upon it, as if it had been her lips, which were not less sweet, and soft, and fresh. He had done nothing but think of Isabelle ever since their separation, and he fully realized now, if he had not before, how indispensable she was to his happiness. She was never out of his mind, waking or sleeping, for he dreamed of her every night, and his love grew fonder, if that were possible, as the weary days went on. She was so good and true, so pure and sweet, so beautiful, so everything that was lovely and desirable, “made of all creatures’ best,” a veritable angel in human guise. Ah! how passionately he loved her–how could he live without her? Yet he feared–he was almost forced to believe–that he had lost her irreparably, and that for him hope was dead. Those were terrible days for the poor, grief-stricken young baron, and he felt that he could not long endure such misery and live. Two or three months passed away thus, and one day when de Sigognac chanced to be in his own room, finishing a sonnet addressed to Isabelle, Pierre entered, and announced to his master that there was a gentleman without who wished to speak with him.

“A gentleman, who wants to see me!” exclaimed the astonished baron. “You must be either romancing or mad, my good Pierre! There is no gentleman in the world who can have anything to say to me. However, for the rarity of the thing, you may bring in this extraordinary mortal–if such there really be, and you are not dreaming, as I shrewdly suspect. But tell me his name first, or hasn’t he got any?”

“He declined to give it, saying that it would not afford your lordship any information,” Pierre made answer, as he turned back and opened wide both leaves of the door.

Upon the threshold appeared a handsome young man, dressed in a rich and elegant travelling costume of chestnut brown cloth trimmed with green, and holding in his hand a broad felt hat with a long green plume; leaving his well shaped, proudly carried head fully exposed to view, as well as the delicate, regular features of a face worthy of an ancient Greek statue. The sight of this fine cavalier did not seem to make an agreeable impression upon de Sigognac, who turned very pale, and rushing to where his trusty sword was suspended, over the head of his bed, drew it from the scabbard, and turned to face the new-comer with the naked blade in his hand.

“By heaven, my lord duke, I believed that I had killed you!” he cried in excited tones. “Is it really you–your very self–or your wraith that stands before me?”

“It is really I–my very self–Hannibal de Vallombreuse, in the flesh, and no wraith; as far from being dead as possible,” answered the young duke, with a radiant smile. “But put up that sword I pray you, my dear baron! We have fought twice already, you know, and surely that is enough. I do not come as an enemy, and if I have to reproach myself with some little sins against you, you have certainly had your revenge for them, so we are quits. To prove that my intentions are not hostile, but of the most friendly nature if you will so allow, I have brought credentials, in the shape of this commission, signed by the king, which gives you command of a regiment. My good father and I have reminded his majesty of the devotion of your illustrious ancestors to his royal ones, and I have ventured to bring you this good news in person. And now, as I am your guest, I pray you have something or other killed, I don’t care what, and put on the spit to roast as quickly as may be–for the love of God give me something to eat–I am starving. The inns are so far apart and so abominably bad down here that there might almost as well be none at all, and my baggage-wagon, stocked with edibles, is stuck fast in a quagmire a long way from this. So you see the necessities of the case.”

“I am very much afraid, my lord duke, that the fare I can offer will seem to you only another form of revenge on my part,” said de Sigognac with playful courtesy; “but do not, I beseech you, attribute to resentment the meagre repast for which I shall be obliged to claim your indulgence. You must know how gladly I would put before you a sumptuous meal if I could; and what we can give you will at least, as my good Pierre says, satisfy hunger, though it may not gratify the palate. And let me now say that your frank and cordial words touch me deeply, and find an echo in my inmost heart. I am both proud and happy to call you my friend–henceforth you will not have one more loyal and devoted than myself–and though you may not often have need of my services, they will be, none the less, always at your disposition. Halloa! Pierre! do you go, without a moment’s delay, and hunt up some fowls, eggs, meat, whatever you can find, and try to serve a substantial meal to this gentleman, my friend, who is nearly dying with hunger, and is not used to it like you and I.”

Pierre put in his pocket some of the money his master had sent him from Paris–which he had never touched before–mounted the pony, and galloped off to the nearest village in search of provisions. He found several fowls–such as they were–a splendid Bayonne ham, a few bottles of fine old wine, and by great good luck, discovered, at the priest’s house, a grand big pate of ducks’ livers–a delicacy worthy of a bishop’s or a prince’s table–and which he had much difficulty to obtain from his reverence, who was a bit of a gourmand, at an almost fabulous price. But this was evidently a great occasion, and the faithful old servant would spare no pains to do it honour. In less than an hour he was at home again, and leaving the charge of the cooking to a capable woman he had found and sent out to the chateau, he immediately proceeded to set the table, in the ancient banqueting hall–gathering together all the fine porcelain and dainty glass that yet remained intact in the two tall buffets–evidences of former splendour. But the profusion of gold and silver plate that used to adorn the festive board of the de Sigognacs had all been converted into coin of the realm long ago.

When at last the old servant announced that dinner was ready, the two young men took their places opposite to each other at table, and Vallombreuse, who was in the gayest, most jovial mood, attacked the viands with an eagerness and ferocity immensely diverting to his host. After devouring almost the whole of a chicken, which, it is true, seemed to have died of a consumption, there was so little flesh on its bones, he fell back upon the tempting, rosy slices of the delicate Bayonne ham, and then passed to the pate of ducks’ livers, which he declared to be supremely delicious, exquisite, ambrosial–food fit for the gods; and he found the sharp cheese, made of goat’s milk, which followed, an excellent relish. He praised the wine, too– which was really very old and fine and drank it with great gusto, out of his delicate Venetian wine-glass. Once, when he caught sight of Pierre’s bewildered, terrified look, as he heard his master address his merry guest as the Duke of Vallombreuse–who ought to be dead, if he was not–he fairly roared with laughter, and was as full of fun and frolic as a school-boy out for a holiday; Meantime de Sigognac, whilst he endeavoured to play the attentive host, and to respond as well as he could to the young duke’s lively sallies, could not recover from his surprise at seeing him sitting there opposite to himself, as a guest at his own table–making himself very much at home, too, in the most charming, genial, easy way imaginable–and yet he was the haughty, overbearing, insolent young nobleman, who had been his hated rival; whom he had twice encountered and defeated, in fierce combat, and who had several times tried to compass his death by means of hired ruffians. What could be the explanation of it all?

The Duke of Vallombreuse divined his companion’s thoughts, and when the old servant had retired, after placing a bottle of especially choice wine and two small glasses on the table, he looked up at de Sigognac and said, with the most amicable frankness, “I can plainly perceive, my dear baron, in spite of your admirable courtesy, that this unexpected step of mine appears very strange and inexplicable to you. You have been saying to yourself, How in the world has it come about, that the arrogant, imperious Vallombreuse has been transformed, from the unscrupulous, cruel, blood-thirsty tiger that he was, into the peaceable, playful lamb he seems to be now–which a ‘gentle shepherdess’ might lead about with a ribbon round its neck!–I will tell you. During the six weeks that I was confined to my bed, I made various reflections, which the thoughtless might pronounce cowardly, but which are permitted to the bravest and most valiant when death stares them in the face. I realized then, for the first time, the relative value of many things, and also how wrong and wicked my own course had been; and I promised myself to do very differently for the future, if I recovered. As the passionate love that Isabelle inspired in my heart had been replaced by a pure and sacred fraternal affection–which is the greatest blessing of my life–I had no further reason to dislike you. You were no longer my rival; a brother cannot be jealous in that way of his own sister; and then, I was deeply grateful to you, for the respectful tenderness and deference I knew you had never failed to manifest towards her, when she was in a position that authorized great license. You were the first to recognise her pure, exalted soul, while she was still only an obscure actress. When she was poor, and despised by those who will cringe to her now, you offered to her–lowly as was her station–the most
precious treasure that a nobleman can possess: the time-honoured name of his ancestors. You would have made her your wife then–now that she is rich, and of high rank, she belongs to you of right. The true, faithful lover of Isabelle, the actress, should be the honoured husband of the Comtesse de Lineuil.”

“But you forget,” cried de Sigognac, in much agitation, “that she always absolutely refused me, though she knew that I was perfectly disinterested.”

“It was because of her supreme delicacy, her angelic susceptibility, and her noble spirit of self-sacrifice that she said that. She feared that she would necessarily be a disadvantage to you–an obstacle in the way of your advancement. But the situation is entirely changed now.”

“Yes, now it is I who would be a disadvantage to her; have I then a right to be less generous and magnanimous than she was?”

“Do you still love my sister?” said Vallombreuse, in a grave tone. “As her brother, I have the right to ask this question.”

“I love her with all my heart, with all my soul, with all my strength,” de Sigognac replied fervently, “as much and more than ever man loved woman on this earth–where nothing is perfect–save Isabelle.”

“Such being the case, my dear Captain of Mousquetaires, and governor of a province–soon to be–have your horse saddled, and come with me to the Chateau of Vallombreuse, so that I may formally present you to the prince, my father, as the favoured suitor of the Comtesse de Lineuil, my sister. Isabelle has refused even to think of the Chevalier de Vidalinc, or the Marquis de l’Estang, as aspirants to her hand–both right handsome, attractive, eligible young fellows, by Jove!–but I am of opinion that she will accept, without very much persuasion, the Baron de Sigognac.”

The next day the duke and the baron were riding gaily forward, side by side, on the road to Paris.

CHAPTER XX. CHIQUITA’S DECLARATION OF LOVE

A compact crowd filled the Place de Greve, despite the early hour indicated by the clock of the Hotel de Ville.

The tall buildings on the eastern side of the square threw their shadows more than half-way across it, and upon a sinister-looking wooden framework, which rose several feet above the heads of the populace, and bore a number of ominous, dull red stains. At the windows of the houses surrounding the crowded square, a few heads were to be seen looking out from time to time, but quickly drawn back again as they perceived that the interesting performance, for which all were waiting, had not yet begun. Clinging to the transverse piece of the tall stone cross, which stood at that side of the open square nearest the river, was a forlorn, little, ragged boy, who had climbed up to it with the greatest difficulty, and was holding on with all his might, his arms clasped round the cross-piece and his legs round the upright, in a most painful and precarious position. But nothing would have induced him to abandon it, so long as he could possibly maintain himself there, no matter at what cost of discomfort, or even actual distress, for from it he had a capital view of the scaffold, and all its horribly fascinating details–the wheel upon which the criminal was to revolve, the coil of rope to bind him to it, and the heavy bar to break his bones.

If any one among the anxious crowd of spectators, however, had carefully studied the small, thin countenance of the child perched up on the tall stone cross, he would have discovered that its expression was by no means that of vulgar curiosity. It was not simply the fierce attractions of an execution that had drawn thither this wild, weird-looking young creature, with his sun-burned complexion, great, flashing, dark eyes, brilliant white teeth, unkempt masses of thick, black hair, and slender brown hands–which were convulsively clinging to the rough, cold stone. The delicacy of the features would seem to indicate a different sex from the dress–but nobody paid any attention to the child, And all eyes were turned towards the scaffold, or the direction from which the cart bearing the condemned criminal was to come. Among the groups close around the scaffold were several faces we have seen before; notably, the chalky countenance and fiery red nose of Malartic, and the bold profile of Jacquemin Lampourde, also several of the ruffians engaged in the abduction of Isabelle, as well as various other habitues of the Crowned Radish. The Place de Greve, to which sooner or later they were all pretty sure to come and expiate their crimes with their lives, seemed to exercise a singular fascination over murderers, thieves, and criminals of all sorts, who invariably gathered in force to witness an execution. They evidently could not resist it, and appeared to find a fierce satisfaction in watching the terrible spectacle that they themselves would some day probably furnish to the gaping multitude. Then the victim himself always expected his friends’ attendance–he would be hurt and disappointed if his comrades did not rally round him at the last. A criminal in that position likes to see familiar faces in the throng that hems him in. It gives him courage, steadies his nerves.

He cannot exhibit any signs of cowardice before those who appreciate true merit and bravery, according to his way of thinking, and pride comes to his aid. A man will meet death like a Roman under such circumstances, who would be weak as a woman if he were despatched in private.

The criminal to be executed on that occasion was a thief, already notorious in Paris for his daring and dexterity, though he had only been there a few months. But, unfortunately for himself–though very much the reverse for the well-to-do citizens of the capital in general–he had not confined himself to his legitimate business. In his last enterprise–breaking into a private dwelling to gain possession of a large sum of money that was to be kept there for a single night–he had killed the master of the house, who was aroused by his entrance; and, not content to stop there, had also brutally murdered his wife, as she lay quietly sleeping in her bed–like a tiger, that has tasted blood and is wild for more. So atrocious a crime had roused the indignation of even his own unscrupulous, hardened companions, and it was not long ere his hiding-place was mysteriously revealed, and he was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. Now he was to pay the penalty of his guilt.

As the fatal hour approached, a carriage drove down along the quay, turned into the Place de Greve, and attempted to cross it; but, becoming immediately entangled in the crowd, could make little or no progress, despite the utmost exertions of the majestic coachman and attendant lackeys to induce the people to make way for it, and let it pass.

But for the grand coat of arms and ducal coronet emblazoned on the panels, which inspired a certain awe as well as respect in the motley throng of pedestrians, the equipage would undoubtedly have been roughly dealt with-but as it was, they contented themselves with resolutely and obstinately barring its passage, after it had reached the middle of the square. The indignant coachman did not dare to urge his spirited horses forward at all hazards, ruthlessly trampling down the unlucky individuals who happened to be directly in his way, as he would certainly have done in any ordinary crowd, for the canaille, that filled the Place de Greve to overflowing, was out in too great force to be trifled with–so there was nothing for it but patience.

“These rascals are waiting for an execution, and will not stir, nor let us stir, until it is over,” said a remarkably handsome young man, magnificently dressed, to his equally fine looking, though more modestly attired friend, who was seated beside him in the luxurious carriage. “The devil take the unlucky dog who must needs be broken on the wheel just when we want to cross the Place de Greve. Why couldn’t he have put it off until to-morrow morning, I should like to know!”

“You may be sure that the poor wretch would be only too glad to do so if he could,” answered the other, “for the occasion is a far more serious matter to him than to us.”

“The best thing we can do under the circumstances, my dear de Sigognac, is to turn our heads away if the spectacle is too revolting–though it is by no means easy, when something horrible is taking place close at hand. Even Saint Augustine opened his eyes in the arena at a loud cheer from the people, though he had vowed to himself beforehand to keep them closed.”

“At all events, we shall not be detained here long,” rejoined de Sigognac, “for there comes the prisoner. See, Vallombreuse, how the crowd gives way before him, though it will not let us move an inch.”

A rickety cart, drawn by a miserable old skeleton of a horse, and surrounded by mounted guards, was slowly advancing through the dense throng towards the scaffold. In it were a venerable priest, with a long white beard, who was holding a crucifix to the lips of the condemned man, seated beside him, the executioner, placed behind his victim, and holding the end of the rope that bound him, and an assistant, who was driving the poor old horse. The criminal, whom every one turned to gaze at, was no other than our old acquaintance, Agostino, the brigand.

“Why, what is this!” cried de Sigognac, in great surprise. “I know that man–he is the fellow who stopped us on the highway, and tried to frighten us with his band of scarecrows, as poor Matamore called them. I told you all about it when we came by the place where it happened.”

“Yes, I remember perfectly,” said Vallombreuse; “it was a capital story, and I had a good laugh over it. But it would seem that the ingenious rascal has been up to something more serious since then–his ambition has probably been his ruin. He certainly is no coward–only look what a good face he puts on it.”

Agostino, holding his head proudly erect, but a trifle paler than usual perhaps, seemed to be searching for some one in the crowd. When the cart passed slowly in front of the stone cross, he caught sight of the little boy, who had not budged from his excessively uncomfortable and wearisome position, and a flash of joy shone in the brigand’s eyes, a slight smile parted his lips, as he made an almost imperceptible sign with his head, and said, in a low tone, “Chiquita!”

“My son, what was that strange word you spoke?” asked the priest. “It sounded like an outlandish woman’s name. Dismiss all such subjects from your mind, and fix your thoughts on your own hopes of salvation, for you stand on the threshold of eternity.”

“Yes, my father, I know it but too well, and though my hair is black and my form erect, whilst you are bowed with age, and your long beard is white as snow, you are younger now than I–every turn of the wheels, towards that scaffold yonder, ages me by ten years.”

During this brief colloquy the cart had made steady progress, and in a moment more had stopped at the foot of the rude wooden steps that led up to the scaffold, which Agostino ascended slowly but unfalteringly–preceded by the assistant, supported by the priest, and followed by the executioner. In less than a minute he was firmly bound upon the wheel, and the executioner, having thrown off his showy scarlet cloak, braided with white, and rolled up his sleeves, stooped to pick up the terrible bar that lay at his feet. It was a moment of intense horror and excitement. An anxious curiosity, largely mixed with dread, oppressed the hearts of the spectators, who stood motionless, breathless, with pale faces, and straining eyes fixed upon the tragic group on the fatal scaffold. Suddenly a strange stir ran through the crowd–the child, who was perched up on the cross, had slipped quickly down to the ground, and gliding like a serpent through the closely packed throng, reached the scaffold, cleared the steps at a bound, and appeared beside the astonished executioner, who was just in the act of raising the ponderous bar to strike, with such a wild, ghastly, yet inspired and noble countenance–lighted up by a strength of will and purpose that made it actually sublime–that the grim dealer of death paused involuntarily, and withheld the murderous blow about to fall.

“Get out of my way, thou puppet!” he roared in angry tones, as he recovered his sang-froid, “or thou wilt get thy accursed head smashed.”

But Chiquita paid no attention to him–she did not care whether she was killed too, or not. Bending over Agostino, she passionately kissed his forehead, whispered “I love thee!”–and then, with a blow as swift as lightning, plunged into his heart the knife she had reclaimed from Isabelle. It was dealt with so firm a hand, and unerring an aim, that death was almost instantaneous–scarcely had Agostino time to murmur “Thanks.”

With a wild burst of hysterical laughter the child sprang down from the scaffold, while the executioner, stupefied at her bold deed, lowered his now useless club; uncertain whether or not he should proceed to break the bones of the man already dead, and beyond his power to torture.

“Well done, Chiquita, well done, and bravely!” cried Malartic– who had recognised her in spite of her boy’s clothes–losing his self-restraint in his admiration. The other ruffians, who had seen Chiquita at the Crowned Radish, and wondered at and admired her courage when she stood against the door and let Agostino fling his terrible navaja at her without moving a muscle, now grouped themselves closely together so as to effectually prevent the soldiers from pursuing her. The fracas that ensued gave Chiquita time to reach the carriage of the Duke of Vallombreuse–which, taking advantage of the stir and shifting in the throng, was slowly making its way out of the Place de Greve. She climbed up on the step, and catching sight of de Sigognac within, appealed to him, in scarcely audible words, as she panted and trembled–“I saved your Isabelle, now save me!”

Vallombreuse, who had been very much interested by this strange and exciting scene, cried to the coachman, “Get on as fast as you can, even if you have to drive over the people.”

But there was no need–the crowd opened as if by magic before the carriage, and closed again compactly after it had passed, so that Chiquita’s pursuers could not penetrate it, or make any progress–they were completely baffled, whichever way they turned. Meanwhile the fugitive was being rapidly carried beyond their reach. As soon as the open street was gained, the coachman had urged his horses forward, and in a very few minutes they reached the Porte Saint Antoine. As the report of what had occurred in the Place de Greve could not have preceded them, Vallombreuse thought it better to proceed at a more moderate pace–fearing that their very speed might arouse suspicion–and gave orders accordingly; as soon as they were fairly beyond the gate he took Chiquita into the carriage– where she seated herself, without a word, opposite to de Sigognac. Under the calmest exterior she was filled with a preternatural excitement–not a muscle of her face moved; but a bright flush glowed on her usually pale cheeks, which gave to her magnificent dark eyes–now fixed upon vacancy, and seeing nothing that was before them–a marvellous brilliancy. A complete transformation had taken place in Chiquita–this violent shock had torn asunder the childish chrysalis in which the young maiden had lain dormant–as she plunged her knife into Agostino’s heart she opened her own. Her love was born of that murder–the strange, almost sexless being, half child, half goblin, that she had been until then, existed no longer–Chiquita was a woman from the moment of that heroic act of sublime devotion. Her passion, that had bloomed out in one instant, was destined to be eternal–a kiss and a stab, that was Chiquita’s love story.

The carriage rolled smoothly and swiftly on its way towards Vallombreuse, and when the high, steep roof of the chateau came in sight the young duke said to de Sigognac, “You must go with me to my room first, where you can get rid of the dust, and freshen up a bit before I present you to my sister–who knows nothing whatever of my journey, or its motive. I have prepared a surprise for her, and I want it to be complete–so please draw down the curtain on your side, while I do the same on mine, in order that we may not be seen, as we drive into the court, from any of the windows that command a view of it. But what are we to do with this little wretch here?”

Chiquita, who was roused from her deep reverie by the duke’s question, looked gravely up at him, and said, “Let some one take me to Mlle. Isabelle–she will decide what is to be done with me.”

With all the curtains carefully drawn down the carriage drove over the drawbridge and into the court. Vallombreuse alighted, took de Sigognac’s arm, and led him silently to his own apartment, after having ordered a servant to conduct Chiquita to the presence of the Comtesse de Lineuil. At sight of her Isabelle was greatly astonished, and, laying down the book she was reading, fixed upon the poor child a look full of interest, affection, and questioning.

Chiquita stood silent and motionless until the servant had retired, then, with a strange solemnity, which was entirely new in her, she went up to Isabelle, and timidly taking her hand, said:

“My knife is in Agostino’s heart. I have no master now, and I must devote myself to somebody. Next to him who is dead I love you best of all the world. You gave me the pearl necklace I wished for, and you kissed me. Will you have me for your servant, your slave, your dog? Only give me a black dress, so that I may wear mourning for my lost love–it is all I ask. I will sleep on the floor outside your door, so that I shall not be in your way. When you want me, whistle for me, like this,”–and she whistled shrilly–“and I will come instantly. Will you have me?”

In answer Isabelle drew Chiquita into her arms, pressed her lips to the girl’s forehead warmly, and thankfully accepted this soul, that dedicated itself to her.

CHAPTER XXI. HYMEN! OH HYMEN!

Isabelle, accustomed to Chiquita’s odd, enigmatical ways, had refrained from questioning her–waiting to ask for explanations until the poor girl should have become more quiet, and able to give them. She could see that some terrible catastrophe must have occurred, which had left all her nerves quivering, and caused the strong shudders that passed over her in rapid succession; but the child had rendered her such good service, in her own hour of need, that she felt the least she could do was to receive and care for the poor little waif tenderly, without making any inquiries as to her evidently desperate situation. After giving her in charge to her own maid, with orders that she should be properly clothed, and made thoroughly comfortable in every way, Isabelle resumed her reading–or rather tried to resume it; but her thoughts would wander, and after mechanically turning over a few pages in a listless way, she laid the book down, beside her neglected embroidery, on a little table at her elbow. Leaning her head on her hand, and closing her eyes, she lapsed into a sorrowful reverie–as, indeed, she had done of late many times every day.

“Oh! what has become of de Sigognac?” she said to herself. “Where can he be? and does he still think of me, and love me as of old? Yes, I am sure he does; he will be true and faithful to me so long as he lives, my brave, devoted knight! I fear that he has gone back to his desolate, old chateau, and, believing that my brother is dead, does not dare to approach me. It must be that chimerical obstacle that stands in his way–otherwise he would surely have tried to see me again–or at least have written to me. Perhaps I ought to have sent him word that Vallombreuse had recovered; yet how could I do that? A modest woman shrinks from even seeming to wish to entice her absent lover back to her side. How often I think that I should be far happier if I could have remained as I was–an obscure actress; then I could at least have had the bliss of seeing him every day, and of enjoying in peace the sweetness of being loved by such a noble, tender heart as his. Despite the touching affection and devotion that my princely father lavishes upon me, I feel sad and lonely in this magnificent chateau. If Vallombreuse were only here his society would help to pass the time; but he is staying away so long–and I try in vain to make out what he meant when he told me, with such a significant smile, as he bade me adieu, that I would be pleased with what he was about to do. Sometimes I fancy that I do understand; but I dare not indulge myself with such blissful thoughts for an instant. If I did, and were mistaken after all, the disappointment would be too cruel–too heart-rending. But, if it only could be true! ah! if it only might! I fear I should go mad with excess of joy.”

The young Comtesse de Lineuil was still absorbed in sad thoughts when a tall lackey appeared, and asked if she would receive his lordship, the Duke of Vallombreuse who had just arrived, at the chateau and desired to speak with her.

“Certainly, I shall be delighted to see him,” she said in glad surprise; “ask him to come to me at once.”

In a few minutes–which had seemed like hours to Isabelle–the young duke made his appearance, with beaming eyes, rosy cheeks, light, elastic step, and that air of glorious health and vigour which had distinguished him before his illness. He threw down his broad felt hat as he came in, and, hastening to his sister’s side, took her pretty white hands and raised them to his lips.

“Dearest Isabelle,” he cried, “I am so rejoiced to see you again! I was obliged to stay away from you much longer than I wished, for it is a great deprivation to me now not to be with you every day–I have gotten so thoroughly into the habit of depending upon your sweet society. But I have been occupied entirely with your interests during my absence, and the hope of pleasing my darling sister, and adding to her happiness, has helped me to endure the long separation from her.”

“The way to please me most, as you ought to have known,” Isabelle replied, “was to stay here at home quietly with your father and me, and let us take care of you, instead of rushing off so rashly–with your wound scarcely healed, or your health fully re-established–on some foolish errand or other, that you were not willing to acknowledge.”

“Was I ever really wounded, or ill?” said Vallombreuse, laughing. “Upon my word I had forgotten all about it. Never in my life was I in better health than at this moment, and my little expedition has done me no end of good. But you, my sweet sister, are not looking as well as when I left you; you have grown thin and pale. What is the matter? I fear that you find your life here at the chateau very dull. Solitude and seclusion are not at all the thing for a beautiful young woman, I know. Reading and embroidery are but melancholy pastimes at best and there must be moments when even the gravest, most sedate of maidens grows weary of gazing out upon the stagnant waters of the moat, and longs to look upon the face of a handsome young knight.”

“Oh! what an unmerciful tease you are, Vallombreuse, and how you do love to torment me with these strange fancies of yours. You forget that I have had the society of the prince, who is so kind and devoted to me, and who abounds in wise and instructive discourse.”

“Yes, there is no doubt that our worthy father is a most learned and accomplished gentleman, honoured and admired at home and abroad; but his pursuits and occupations are too grave and weighty for you to share, my dear little sister, and I don’t want to see your youth passed altogether in such a solemn way. As you would not smile upon my friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc, nor condescend to listen to the suit of the Marquis de l’Estang, I concluded to go in search of somebody that would be more likely to please your fastidious taste, and, my dear, I have found him. Such a charming, perfect, ideal husband he will make! I am convinced that you will dote upon him.”

“It is downright cruelty, Vallombreuse, to persecute me as you do, with such unfeeling jests. You know perfectly well that I do not wish to marry; I cannot give my hand without my heart, and my heart is not mine to give.”

“But you will talk very differently, I do assure you, my dear little sister, when you see the husband I have chosen for you.”

“Never! never!” cried Isabelle, whose voice betrayed her distress. “I shall always be faithful to a memory that is infinitely dear and precious to me; for I cannot think that you intend to force me to act against my will.”

“Oh, no! I am not quite such a tyrant as that; I only ask you not to reject my protege before you have seen him.”

Without waiting for her reply, Vallombreuse abruptly left the room, and returned in a moment with de Sigognac, whose heart was throbbing as if it would burst out of his breast. The two young men, hand in hand, paused on the threshold, hoping that Isabelle would turn her eyes towards them; but she modestly cast them down and kept them fixed upon the floor, while her thoughts flew far away, to hover about the beloved being who she little dreamed was so near her. Vallombreuse, seeing that she took no notice of them, and had fallen into a reverie, advanced towards her, still holding de Sigognac by the hand, and made a ceremonious bow, as did also his companion; but while the young duke was smiling and gay, de Sigognac was deeply agitated, and very pale. Brave as a lion when he had to do with men, he was timid with women–as are all generous, manly hearts.

“Comtesse de Lineuil,” said Vallombreuse, in an emphatic tone of voice, “permit me to present to you one of my dearest friends, for whom I entreat your favour–the Baron de Sigognac.”

As he pronounced this name, which she at first believed to be a jest on her brother’s part, Isabelle started, trembled violently, and then glanced up timidly at the newcomer.

When she saw that Vallombreuse had not deceived her, that it was really he, her own true lover, standing there before her, she turned deathly pale, and had nearly fallen from her chair; then the quick reaction came, and a most lovely blush spread itself all over her fair face, and even her snowy neck, as far as it could be seen. Without a word, she sprang up, and throwing her arms round her brother’s neck hid her face on his shoulder, while two or three convulsive sobs shook her slender frame and a little shower of tears fell from her eyes. By this instinctive movement, so exquisitely modest and truly feminine, Isabelle manifested all the exceeding delicacy and purity of her nature. Thus were her warm thanks to Vallombreuse, whose kindness and generosity overcame her, mutely expressed; and as she could not follow the dictates of her heart, and throw herself into her lover’s arms, she took refuge in her transport of joy with her brother, who had restored him to her.

Vallombreuse supported her tenderly for a few moments, until he found she was growing calmer, when he gently disengaged himself from her clasping arms, and drawing down the hands with which she had covered her face, to hide its tears and blushes, said, “My sweet sister, do not, I pray you, hide your lovely face from us; I fear my protege will be driven to believe that you entertain such
an invincible dislike to him you will not even look at him.”

Isabelle raised her drooping head, and turning full upon de Sigognac her glorious eyes, shining with a celestial joy, in spite of the sparkling tear-drops that still hung upon their long lashes, held out to him her beautiful white hand, which he took reverentially in both his own, and bending down pressed fervently to his lips. The passionate kiss he imprinted upon it thrilled through Isabelle’s whole being, and for a second she turned faint and giddy; but the delicious ecstasy, which is almost anguish, of such emotion as hers, is never hurtful, and she presently looked up and smiled reassuringly upon her anxious lover, as the colour returned to her lips and cheeks, and the warm light to her eyes.

“And now tell me, my sweet little sister,” began Vallombreuse, with an air of triumph, and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, “wasn’t I right when I declared that you would smile upon the husband I had chosen for you? and would not be discouraged, though you were so obstinate? If I had not been equally so, this dear de Sigognac would have gone back to his far-away chateau, without even having seen you; and that would have been a pity, as you must admit.”

“Yes, I do admit it, my dearest brother, and also that you have been adorably kind and good to me. You were the only one who, under the circumstances, could bring about this reunion, and we both know how to appreciate what you have so nobly and generously done for us.”

“Yes, indeed,” said de Sigognac warmly; “your brother has given us ample proof of the nobility and generosity of his nature–he magnanimously put aside the resentment that might seem legitimate, and came to me with his hand outstretched, and his heart in it. He revenges himself nobly for the harm I was obliged to do him, by imposing an eternal gratitude upon me–a light burden, that I shall bear joyfully so long as I live.”

“Say nothing more about that, my dear baron!” Vallombreuse exclaimed. “You would have done as much in my place. The differences of two valiant adversaries are very apt to end in a warm mutual attachment–we were destined from the beginning to become, sooner or later, a devoted pair of friends; like Theseus and Pirithous, Nisus and Euryalus, or Damon and Pythias. But never mind about me now, and tell my sister how you were thinking of her, and longing for her, in that lonely chateau of yours; where, by the way, I made one of the best meals I ever had in my life, though you do pretend that starvation is the rule down there.”

“And _I_ had a charming supper there too,” said Isabelle with a smile, “which I look back upon with the greatest pleasure.”

“Nevertheless,” rejoined de Sigognac, “plenty does not abound there–but I cannot regret the blessed poverty that was the means of first winning me your regard, my precious darling! I am thankful for it–I owe everything to it.”

“_I_ am of opinion,” interrupted Vallombreuse, with a significant smile, “that it would be well for me to go and report myself to my father. I want to announce your arrival to him myself, de Sigognac! Not that he will need to be specially prepared to receive you, for I am bound to confess–what may surprise my little sister here–that he knew such a thing might come about, and was equally implicated with my graceless self in this little conspiracy. But one thing yet–tell me before I go, Isabelle, Comtesse de Lineuil, whether you really do intend to accept the Baron de Sigognac as your husband–I don’t want to run any risk of making a blunder at this stage of the proceedings, you understand, after having conducted the negotiations successfully up to this point. You do definitely and finally accept him, eh?–that is well–and now I will go to the prince. Engaged lovers sometimes have matters to discuss that even a brother may not hear, so I will leave you together, feeling sure that you will both thank me for it in your hearts. Adieu!–make the most of
your time, for I shall soon return to conduct de Sigognac to the prince.”

With a laughing nod the young duke picked up his hat and went away, leaving the two happy lovers alone together, and–however agreeable his company may have been to them, it must be admitted that his absence was, as he had predicted, very welcome to both. The Baron de Sigognac eagerly approached Isabelle, and–again possessed himself of her fair hand, which she did not withdraw from his warm, loving clasp. Neither spoke, and for a few minutes the fond lovers stood side by side and gazed into each other’s eyes. Such silence is more eloquent than any words. At last de Sigognac said softly, “I can scarcely believe even yet in the reality of so much bliss. Oh! what a strange, contradictory destiny is mine. You loved me, my darling, because I was poor and unhappy–and thus my past misery was the direct cause of my present felicity. A troupe of strolling actors, who chanced to seek refuge under my crumbling roof, held in reserve for me an angel of purity and goodness–a hostile encounter has given me a devoted friend–and, most wonderful of all, your forcible abduction led to your meeting the fond father who had been seeking you so many years in vain. And all this because a Thespian chariot went astray one stormy night in the Landes.”

“We were destined for each other–it was all arranged for us in heaven above. Twin souls are sure to come together at last, if they can only have patience to wait for the meeting. I felt instinctively, when we met at the Chateau de Sigognac, that you were my fate. At sight of you my heart, which had always lain dormant before, and never responded to any appeal, thrilled within me, and, unasked, yielded to you all its love and allegiance. Your very timidity won more for you than the greatest boldness and assurance could have done, and from the first moment of our acquaintance I resolved never to give myself to any one but you, or God.”

“And yet, cruel, hard-hearted child that you were–though so divinely good and lovely–you refused your hand to me, when I sued for it on my knees. I know well that it was all through generosity, and that of the noblest–but, my darling, it was a very cruel generosity too.”

“I will do my best to atone for it now, my dearest de Sigognac, in giving you this hand you wished for, together with my heart, which has long been all your own. The Comtesse de Lineuil is not bound to be governed by the scruples of Isabelle, the actress. I have had only one fear–that your pride might keep you from ever seeking me again as I am now. But, even if you had given me up, you would never have loved another woman, would you, de Sigognac? You would have been faithful to me always, even though you had renounced me–I felt so sure of that. Were you thinking of me down there in your ancient chateau, when Vallombreuse broke in upon your solitude?”

“My dearest Isabelle, by day I had only one thought–of you–and at night, when I kissed the sacred pillow on which your lovely head had rested, before laying my own down upon it, I besought the god of dreams to show me your adored image while I slept.”

“And were your prayers sometimes answered?”

“Always–not once was I disappointed–and only when morning came did you leave me, vanishing through ‘the ivory gates.’ Oh I how interminable the sad, lonely days seemed to me, and how I wished that I could sleep, and dream of you, my angel, all the weary time.”

“I saw you also in my dreams, many nights in succession. Our souls must have met, de Sigognac, while our bodies lay wrapped in slumber. But now, thanks be to God, we are reunited–and forever. The prince, my father, knew and approved of your being brought here, Vallombreuse said, so we can have no opposition to our wishes to fear from him. He has spoken to me of you several times of late in very flattering terms; looking at me searchingly, the while, in a way that greatly agitated and troubled me, for I did not know what might be in his mind, as Vallombreuse had not then told me that he no longer hated you, and I feared that he would always do so after his double defeat at your hands. But all the terrible anxiety is over now, my beloved, and blessed peace and happiness lie before us.”

At this moment the door opened, and the young duke announced to de Sigognac that his father was waiting to receive him. The baron immediately rose from his seat beside Isabelle, bowed low to her, and followed Vallombreuse to the prince’s presence. The aged nobleman, dressed entirely in black, and with his breast covered with orders, was sitting in a large arm-chair at a table heaped up with books and papers, with which he had evidently been occupied. His attitude was stately and dignified, and the expression of his noble, benevolent countenance affable in the extreme. He rose to receive de Sigognac, gave him a cordial greeting, and politely bade him be seated.

“My dear father,” said Vallombreuse, “I present to you the Baron de Sigognac; formerly my rival, now my friend, and soon to be my brother, if you consent. Any improvement that you may see in me is due to his influence, and it is no light obligation that I owe to him–though he will not admit that there is any. The baron comes to ask a favour of you, which I shall rejoice to see accorded to him.”

The prince made a gesture of acquiescence, and looked reassuringly at de Sigognac, as if inviting him to speak fearlessly for himself. Encouraged by the expression of his eyes, the baron rose, and, with a low bow, said, in clear, distinct tones, “Prince, I am here to ask of you the hand of Mlle. la Comtesse Isabelle de Lineuil, your daughter.”

The old nobleman looked at him steadily and searchingly for a moment, and then, as if satisfied with his scrutiny, answered: “Baron de Sigognac, I accede to your request, and consent to this alliance, with great pleasure–so far, that is, as my paternal will accords with the wishes of my beloved daughter–whom I should
never attempt to coerce in anything. The Comtesse de Lineuil must be consulted in this matter, and herself decide the question which is of such vital importance to her. I cannot undertake to answer for her–the whims and fancies of young ladies are sometimes so odd and unexpected.”

The prince said this with a mischievous smile–as if he had not long known that Isabelle loved de Sigognac with all her heart, and was pining for him. After a brief pause, he added: “Vallombreuse, go and fetch your sister, for, without her, I cannot give a definite answer to the Baron de Sigognac.”

The young duke accordingly went for Isabelle, who was greatly alarmed at this summons, and obeyed it in fear and trembling. Despite her brother’s assurances, she could not bring herself to believe in the reality of such great happiness. Her breast heaved tumultuously, her face was very pale, at each step her knees threatened to give way under her, and when her father drew her fondly to his side she was forced to grasp the arm of his chair tightly, to save herself from falling.

“My daughter,” said the prince gravely, “here is a gentleman who does you the honour to sue for your hand. For my own part, I should hail this union with joy–for he is of an ancient and illustrious family, of stainless reputation and tried courage, and appears to me to possess every qualification that heart could desire. I am perfectly satisfied with him–but has he succeeded in
pleasing you, my child? Young heads do not always agree with gray ones. Examine your own heart carefully, and tell me if you are willing to accept the Baron de Sigognac as your husband. Take plenty of time to consider–you shall not be hurried, my dear child, in so grave a matter as this.”

The prince’s kindly, cordial smile gave evidence that he was in a playful mood, and Isabelle, plucking up courage, threw her arms round her father’s neck, and said in the softest tones, “There is no need for me to consider or hesitate, my dear lord and father! Since the Baron de Sigognac is so happy as to please you, I confess, freely and frankly, that I have loved him ever since we first met, and have never wished for any other alliance. To obey, you in this will be my highest happiness.”

“And now clasp hands, my children, and exchange the kiss of betrothal,” cried the Duke of Vallombreuse gaily. “Verily, the romance ends more happily than could have been expected after such a stormy beginning. And now the next question is, when shall the wedding be?”

“It will take a little time to make due preparation,” said the prince. “So many people must be set to work, in order that the marriage of my only daughter may be worthily celebrated. Meanwhile, Isabelle, here is your dowry, the deed of the estate of Lineuil–from which you derive your title, and which yields you an income of fifty thousand crowns per annum–together with rent-rolls, and all the various documents appertaining thereto”– and he handed a formidable roll of papers to her. “As to you, my dear de Sigognac, I have here for you a royal ordinance, which constitutes you governor of a province; and no one, I venture to say, could be more worthy of this distinguished honour than yourself.”

Vallombreuse, who had gone out of the room while his father was speaking, now made his appearance, followed by a servant carrying a box covered with crimson velvet.

He took it from the lackey at the door, and advancing, placed it upon the table in front of Isabelle.

“My dear little sister,” said he, “will you accept this from me as a wedding gift?”

On the cover was inscribed “For Isabelle,” in golden letters, and it contained the very casket which the Duke of Vallombreuse had offered at Poitiers to the young actress, and which she had so indignantly refused to receive, or even look at.

“You will accept it this time?” he pleaded, with a radiant smile; “and honour these diamonds of finest water, and these pearls of richest lustre, by wearing them, for my sake. They are not more pure and beautiful than yourself.”

Isabelle smilingly took up a magnificent necklace and clasped it round her fair neck, to show that she harboured no resentment; then put the exquisite bracelets on her round, white arms, and decked herself with the various superb ornaments that the beautiful casket contained.

And now we have only to add, that a week later Isabelle and de Sigognac were united in marriage in the chapel at Vallombreuse, which was brilliantly lighted, and filled with fragrance from the profusion of flowers that converted it into a very bower. The music was heavenly, the fair bride adorably beautiful, with her long white veil floating about her, and the Baron de Sigognac radiant with happiness. The Marquis de Bruyeres was one of his witnesses, and a most brilliant and aristocratic assemblage “assisted” at this notable wedding in high life. No one, who had not been previously informed of it, could ever have suspected that the lovely bride–at once so noble and modest, so dignified and graceful, so gentle and refined, yet with as lofty a bearing as a princess of the blood royal–had only a short time before been one of a band of strolling players, nightly fulfilling her duties as an actress. While de Sigognac, governor of a province, captain of mousquetaires, superbly dressed, dignified, stately and affable, the very beau-ideal of a distinguished young nobleman, had nothing about him to recall the poor, shabby, disconsolate youth, almost starving in his dreary, half-ruined chateau, whose misery was described at the beginning of this tale.

After a splendid collation, graced by the presence of the bride and groom, the happy pair vanished; but we will not attempt to follow them, or intrude upon their privacy–turning away at the very threshold of the nuptial chamber, singing, in low tones, after the fashion of the ancients, “Hymen! oh Hymen!”

The mysteries of such sacred happiness as theirs should be respected; and besides, sweet, modest Isabelle would have died of shame if so much as a single one of the pins that held her bodice were indiscreetly drawn out.

CHAPTER XXII. THE CASTLE OF HAPPINESS

EPILOGUE

It will be readily believed that our sweet Isabelle had not forgotten, in her exceeding happiness as Mme. la Baronne de Sigognac, her former companions of Herode’s troupe. As she could not invite them to her wedding because they would have been so much out of place there–she had, in commemoration of that auspicious occasion, sent handsome and appropriate gifts to them all; offered with a grace so charming that it redoubled their value. So long as the company remained in Paris, she went often to see them play; applauding her old friends heartily, and judiciously as well, knowing just where the applause should be given. The young baronne did not attempt to conceal the fact that she had formerly been an actress herself–not parading it, but referring to it quietly, if necessary, as a matter of course; an excellent method to disarm ill-natured tongues, which would surely have wagged vigorously had any mystery been made about it. In addition, her illustrious birth and exalted position imposed silence upon those around her, and her sweet dignity and modesty had soon won all hearts–even those of her own sex–until it was universally conceded that there was not a greater or truer lady in court circles than the beautiful young Baronne de Sigognac.

The king, Louis XIII, having heard Isabelle’s eventful history, praised her highly for her virtuous conduct, and evinced great interest in de Sigognac, whom he heartily commended for his respectful, honourable gallantry, under circumstances that, according to general opinion, would authorize all manner of license. His deference to defenceless virtue peculiarly pleased the chaste, reserved monarch, who had no sympathy with, or indulgence for the wild, unbridled excesses of the licentious youth of his capital and court. As to Vallombreuse, he had entirely changed and amended his way of life, and seemed to find unfailing pleasure and satisfaction, as well as benefit, in the companionship of his new friend and brother, to whom he was devoted, and who fully reciprocated his warm affection; while the prince, his father, joyfully dwelt in the bosom of his reunited family, and found in it the happiness he had vainly sought before. The young husband and wife led a charming life, more and more in love with and devoted to each other, and never experiencing that satiety of bliss which is ruinous to the most perfect happiness. Although Isabelle had no concealments from her husband, and shared even her inmost thoughts with him, yet for a time she seemed very much occupied with some mysterious business–
apparently exclusively her own.

She had secret conferences with her steward, with an architect, and also with certain sculptors and painters–all without de Sigognac’s knowledge, and by the connivance of Vallombreuse, who seemed to be her confidant, aider and abettor.

One fine morning, several months after their marriage, Isabelle said to de Sigognac, as if a sudden thought had struck her: “My dear lord, do you never think of your poor, deserted, old chateau? and have you no desire to return to the birthplace of our love?”

“I am not so unfeeling as that, my darling, and I have thought of it longingly many times of late. But I did not like to propose the journey to you without being sure that it would please you. I did not like to tear you away from the delights of the court–of which you are the chief ornament–and take you to that poor, old, half-ruined mansion, the haunt of rats and owls, where I could not hope to make you even comfortable, yet, which I prefer, miserable as it is, to the most luxurious palaces; for it was the home of my ancestors, and the place where I first saw you, my heart’s delight!–spot ever sacred and dear to me, upon which I should like to erect an altar.”

“And I,” rejoined Isabelle, “often wonder whether the eglantine in the garden still blooms, as it did for me.”

“It does,” said de Sigognac, “I am sure of it–having once been blessed by your touch, it must be always blooming–even though there be none to see.”

“Ah! my lord, unlike husbands in general, you are more gallant after marriage than before,” Isabelle said, laughingly, yet deeply touched by his tender words, “and you pay your wife compliments as if she were your ladylove. And now, since I have ascertained that your wishes accord with my whim, will it please your lordship to set out for the Chateau de Sigognac this week? The weather is fine. The great heat of summer is over, and we can really enjoy the journey. Vallombreuse will go with us, and I shall take Chiquita. She will be glad to see her own country again.”

The needful preparations were soon made, and the travelling party set off in high spirits. The journey was rapid and delightful. Relays of horses had been sent on in advance by Vallombreuse, so that in a few days they reached the point where the road leading to the Chateau de Sigognac branched off from the great post-road. It was about two o’clock of a bright, warm afternoon when the carriage turned off the highway, and as they got, at the same moment, their first view of the chateau, de Sigognac could not believe the testimony of his own eyes–he was bewildered, dazzled, overwhelmed–he no longer recognised the familiar details
which had been so deeply impressed upon his memory. All was changed, as if by magic. The road, smooth, free from grass and weeds, and freshly gravelled, had no more ruts; the hedges, neatly trimmed and properly tended, no longer reached out long, straggling arms to catch the rare passer-by; the tall trees on either side had been carefully pruned, so that their branches met in an arch overhead, and framed in a most astonishing picture. Instead of the dreary ruin, slowly crumbling into dust, a fine new chateau rose before them–resembling the old one as a son resembles his father. It was an exact reproduction–nothing had been changed, only renewed–it was simply the ancient mansion rejuvenated. The walls were smooth and unbroken, the lofty towers