Literary Thoughts edition presents A Fire of Driftwood by D. K. Broster ------ "A Fire of Driftwood: A Collection of Short Stories" was written by D. K. Broster (Dorothy Kathleen Broster) and was first published in 1932. The collection is split into two sections, with the first having nothing supernatural about it and containing stories like Our Lady of Succour, The Inn of the Sword, The Book of Hours or The Promised Land. All books of the Literary Thoughts edition have been transscribed from original prints and edited for better reading experience. Please visit our homepage www.literarythoughts.com to see our other publications.
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Liczba stron: 462
by D. K. Broster (Dorothy Kathleen Broster)
Transscribed and Published 2016 by Jacson Keating (editor)
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By D. K. Broster
OUR LADY OF SUCCOUR
Yes, the gold was only gilt,
And you never knew it;
Cracked the cup, the wine half spilt,
Lees a-tremble through it.
But you thought the ore was true,
And the draught unshaken:
Doubtless, dreams are best for you,
Dreamer . . . till you waken!
Les Illusions Retenues.
In Madame de Seignelay’s Souvenirs de ma Jeunesse she speaks more than once of a gentleman whom she used to see at her uncle’s house in Angers, when she stayed there as a child about the year 1816. This person, a M. de Beaumanoir, made a great impression on the youthful mind of Madame de Seignelay, ardent Royalist as she always was, for he had fought with La Rochejaquelein and Bonchamps in that great Vendée, “dont on n’est jamais arrivé à me conter trop d’histoires,” as she confesses.
“He was tall,” she says, “but not too tall, had the grand air to perfection, laughed rarely, possessed a charming smile, and limped a little in a way that I found ravishing, for did I not know it to be the result of a wound gained in those combats of heroes and martyrs? M. de Beaumanoir, when I knew him, must have been about eight-and-forty. And I was ten – a child voracious of information, especially on the subject of the Vendée; but I never could arrive at any definite stories of my hero’s heroic deeds. Himself I never dared to question, for, though I adored, I feared him, with a delicious tremor which, alas! I have not felt for many a long year.
“One day, however, I remember summoning my courage and going up to him where he stood alone by the portentous curtains which used to deck my uncle’s salon windows.
“ ‘Monsieur le Vicomte,’ I said breathlessly and suddenly, ‘is it really true that you actually knew le saint Lescure?’
“M. de Beaumanoir started, and looked down at me (no child of mine has ever worn such hideous frocks as I wore in those days). ‘C’est toi donc, petite Vendéenne,’ he said, smiling. ‘Yes, it is quite true. Do you want to hear about him? He was a good man!’
“ ‘A saint!’ I murmured piously.
“M. de Beaumanoir smiled again, and said – I think to himself – ‘There were saints among the Republicans, too.’
“But at the time that last astounding utterance of my hero’s so wrought upon me that all recollection of what he subsequently told me of M. de Lescure was effaced. The idea of righteousness in the ranks of the foe intrigued me to such a point that I sought counsel of my uncle. When I referred the matter to him he first looked puzzled and then began to smile.
“ ‘Et de qui donc t’a-t-il parlé, Charlotte?’ he asked. ‘D’un saint ou d’une sainte? Of the latter, I’ll wager.’
“ ‘I do not understand,’ I replied, somewhat offended. Nor did I understand for years, and though I worshipped M. le Vicomte none the less fervently for his startling lapse from orthodoxy, I believe that I never had another private conversation with him. It was not until after my marriage that I heard the story to which he must have been referring that evening. . . .”
Adèle Moustier was going to meet an admirer, and from the way she walked through the barley you would have thought each blade a possible conquest. As wars and their rumours in no way deterred Adèle from campaigns of her own, so did her flighty little head remain undisturbed by the very near presence of battle. Only yesterday morning had all Cezay-la-Fontaine been throbbing with excitement; only yesterday evening had it welcomed Rossignol’s two regiments after their victorious skirmish with the Royalists in the scarcely league-distant wood of Champerneau. It was still indeed disturbed and jubilant, and Adèle, as the Maire’s daughter, might reasonably have been more conscious than she was of Republican fervour. But she was a little indifferent to martial glory, and disliked noise and all ill sights. So she walked through the field with her nose in the air and the points of her second-best cap standing out at a provoking angle. Cezay-la-Fontaine was a good half-mile behind her, and the diagonal path across the unfenced barley was approaching the high-road, when suddenly she uttered a scream. At her feet, in a trampled patch of the ripe grain, lay the dead body of a Vendéan.
There was no mistaking his identity, for on the embroidered vest which showed beneath his short Breton jacket was sewn the symbol of the Sacred Heart, and a thin white scarf, fringed and torn, was wound about his waist. He lay on his back with his arms spread wide, and he was quite young, and had long bright hair. There shot through Adèle a pang of horror and a simultaneous desire to get away, for as she had kept within doors when the wounded were brought in, and had had no dealings with them since their arrival, this form at her feet was a spectacle of a disturbing novelty. The next moment horror had given place to a sort of indignation.
“In the barley, too!” she thought. “Just where one walks!”
It was precisely at this moment that the Vicomte de Beaumanoir opened his eyes.
Adèle stood still, galvanised by the shock of finding two living points of light in the ghastly face. It is probable that the Vicomte saw but indistinctly whom or what he was addressing when he said, without stirring, in a terrible cracked voice that shook Adèle’s little soul to its foundations:
“Water . . . for God’s sake get me some water. . . .”
“Oh, mon Dieu!” said Adèle to herself. The final unpleasantness had descended upon her, and she must minister to a dying man. “There is none,” she faltered, and even as she spoke remembered the stream between the field and the high-road. But she had nothing to bring water in. She must go on quickly, or turn back. Yet the wounded man’s eyes held her, half-frightened. It was the most disagreeable position she had ever been in, and at the back of her mind was a consciousness that she might feel even more uncomfortable in the future if she left the petition unanswered. She hesitated on the path, looking vaguely round for escape. There was no one else in sight.
The barley rustled as the wounded Royalist dragged himself up to one elbow.
“If you would only dip your handkerchief into a puddle,” he said, with desperate pleading. “I want very little . . . only one cannot die while one is so thirsty. . . .”
A shiver went through the girl, and she fled precipitately towards the road.
When she got to the stream, a dozen yards away, a complete revulsion of purpose had taken place in Adèle’s soul. She had, on starting for that goal, the firmest intention of crossing it by the footbridge and pursuing her way down the road. Instead, she was suddenly stooping over the water with a piece of a broken bowl in her fingers. Possibly the very sight of that opportune bit of crockery, dropped there by the hand of Fate or a careless village urchin, wrought the change. Even with the dripping bowl in her fingers she hesitated; but there was no one on the high-road: she must return and give the water to the man herself. Her hand shook a little as she stooped over him and put the bowl without a word into one of his. The eagerness with which he drank was horrible to witness, and Adèle averted her eyes, only to meet a worse sight. The Vendéan’s left leg, to the top of his high boot, was a scarcely dried welter of blood. The same shuddering resentment surged through Adèle. Why should she be forced to encounter these disagreeable things? Anyhow, she could go now.
“Mademoiselle, you are an angel,” said the young man, looking up at her. . . . “I cannot thank you.”
Now that a little life and expression had come back into his mask of a face, Adèle saw that it was handsome, and dimly realised that it was also high-bred. But the light went out again immediately, and, sinking back, the Vendéan lay still once more, with closed eyes.
“Now I can go,” thought Adèle joyfully; and she went.
On the footbridge she turned and looked back. The young Royalist was lying very much as she had first seen him, save that he had flung an arm over his face. The sun was hot . . . of course he could not move into the shade. She wondered how long he would have to stay there – and indeed how he had got there at all. He had spoken of dying; perhaps he was dying now, or dead. If he had not mentioned that unpleasant possibility, or if she had not promised to meet young Lépine at the mill, or even if it had not been so hot in the barley, she would certainly have stopped a little longer – though, of course, she could have done nothing. Certainly, she told herself, she would have stopped – and walked steadily over the little bridge and down the road.
As it happened, Adèle need not have sketched these shadowy justifications for her conduct, for Charles de Beaumanoir was quite unaware of her departure.
Now Jacques Lépine was not at the trysting-place, and in consequence it was an irate Adèle who came along the high-road some twenty minutes later. The misdemeanour of the swain, conjectures as to its possible cause, and schemes for its punishment occupied her mind to the exclusion of everything else. Could he have heard that the blacksmith’s nephew said that he had kissed her? Could. . . . But here Adèle, who was profoundly indifferent to Lépine fils in himself, and merely outraged at his behaviour, caught sight of the little bridge and remembered the Vendéan. She hesitated, because if he was dead she was certainly not going to pass him. But no; people did not die like that. She went over the bridge. He was still there in the barley, motionless, and she approached him slowly. He was breathing, but his eyes were closed.
“He is very ill,” thought Adèle. “I wonder what it is like to die.” She looked down in silence at his drawn features, at his disordered hair, as gleaming as her own, at the clenched hand, delicate and sunburnt, lying on his breast. A certain conclusion came to her as she looked, and made her heart leap, Republican though she was.
“He is a ci-devant, an aristo,” she said to herself. “He is not a peasant, for all his dress.” It seemed to make a difference, and, kneeling down, she touched the hand lightly with her own, and said, “Shall I get you some more water?”
The young man opened his eyes.
“Keep to the right, men; keep to the right!” he said indistinctly. “There are Blues in the clearing. . . . Ah, it is you, Eustacie!” He looked hard at Adèle, and his face changed. “Pardon me – I was dreaming. And you have been here all the time, Mademoiselle? You are too kind . . . too kind.”
“I wish – – ” began Adèle, and halted, for she did not know what she wished.
The Vicomte continued to look at her. “You would be still more kind,” he said, “if you would tell the – tell your friends that there is a Blanc in the corn who would be very glad to see them.”
Adèle stared, puzzled. “Tell them?” she repeated. “But – – ”
A rather bitter little smile crept round the corners of the set mouth. “Just so,” said the Royalist. “If they can shoot straight I should be very pleased to meet them. In my case” – he glanced at his mangled leg – “one desires to postpone it no longer than can be helped. Will you do it, Mademoiselle, and put the crown on your charity?”
Adèle sprang indignant to her feet. “I! Not for worlds! For what do you take me?” She broke off as a sound caught her ear.
Down the road were coming at a trot a troop of Republican cavalry returning from Champerneau on the other side of the wood, where they had been quartered for the night after pursuing fugitives. And the barley-field was open to a horseman’s eye if not to a pedestrian’s.
Adèle turned round again. She was rather pale. “They are coming,” she exclaimed. “What shall I do?”
“A la bonne heure!” said Charles de Beaumanoir. “You can do nothing, Mademoiselle, but go away as quickly as you can. My best thanks for the water, and your company.”
But Adèle still stood there, chained by an indecision which was revealed in her attitude. The quick eye of the officer in command was caught by her pose, and flashed from her to the prone figure in the barley. The riders were halted, and he was off his horse and over the foot-bridge in a moment, drawing a pistol from his sash as he came.
“Let Mademoiselle get away first,” observed the Royalist coolly, without moving. Adèle seemed fascinated with terror.
The officer, a young man with a tight-lipped mouth, glanced at him, and replaced the pistol. “Is this your prisoner, citoyenne,” he said to the girl, “or your lover?”
“He – I – – ” began Adèle, between anger and confusion, but the Republican did not wait for an answer to his pleasantry.
“When did you get that?” he demanded curtly, pointing to the Vendéan’s injury.
“Last night,” said the Vicomte.
“You are an officer?”
“You were with your main body at Champerneau?”
“In advance of it.”
“And where did they mean to retire to, in the event of a defeat?”
“I have not the faintest idea,” responded M. de Beaumanoir languidly. His interlocutor, seemingly satisfied, abandoned the topic and embarked upon another.
“And your leader was, you said – – ?”
The Vicomte glanced up sharply at him. “I did not say.”
“Well, you can say now, then. It was either Talmont or d’Autichamp.”
“You must ask somebody else,” said the Vendéan, with a return to his indifferent manner. “I do not intend to tell you.”
“That is a pity,” responded the officer, with an ugly little smile, “for I intend that you shall.” He moved a little nearer to the prostrate man and repeated his question, still smiling. “Come now, who was it?”
“I shall not tell you.”
The smile dropped from the Republican’s face.
“I can find a way to make you, canaille d’aristocrate,” he said through his teeth, and, walking round him, deliberately aimed a kick with his heavily-booted foot at his captive’s shattered leg.
A scream broke from the young man. Adèle put her hands over her ears.
“Come, tell me,” said the officer. “It’s of no use being obstinate – you will have to tell me in the end.”
“Never!” gasped the Royalist. “Oh, for God’s sake shoot me at once! I swear I will not tell you!”
“We shall see,” quoth the other, and he repeated his expedient. The form at his feet quivered and then lay still. Charles de Beaumanoir had fainted; and just as his tormentor, bending quickly over him, arrived at that conclusion, an interruption of another sort occurred.
“Coward! coward! Stop – stop instantly!” cried a girl’s voice, and Adèle Moustier, carried out of herself for the first time in her existence, confronted the Republican across the insensible body of his victim with clenched hands and sparkling eyes.
“Eh, citoyenne!” returned the officer lightly. “Quelle mouche te pique? What enthusiasm for a cursed Chouan! Do you know that it becomes you devilishly well, though?”
And Adèle, to whom the most wonderful thing of her life had just happened, turned away with a giggle and a toss of the head.
The officer, after surveying her for a moment, summoned two of his men, and she heard him telling them to take the Chouan and convey him somehow – he did not care how – to the church where their own wounded lay. “The citoyenne will perhaps show you a short cut,” he suggested.
“Indeed I shall not,” snapped Adèle; and, unwilling to witness any more distressing scenes, she started off homewards at a good pace.
Our Lady of Succour, with the Child in her arms, looked down with the same grave pity on her own untended altar and at the figure lying at the foot of the shallow steps before it. Partly on account of the sanctity of the original Madonna at Guingamp, partly because the chapel was so small, it had escaped iconoclastic attention. On either side of the gracious figure still stood the attendant saints: St. Yves, in his notary’s dress, and Ste. Anne, with the child Virgin at her side – saints dear to Bretons of north and south, of Tréguier and Auray. But no priest served the altar now, and it was seldom that anyone was seen in the little chapel saying the Litany of Our Lady of Succour, as many had once done, with devotion and faith.
Yet the tender and pitying face had been the first to greet Charles de Beaumanoir’s eyes when, after his deep swoon, he opened them to find himself lying at the foot of the altar. The memory of his long night of agony in the barley-field, whither, without any conscious motive, he had dragged himself to die, of the thirst that was worse than the pain, and of the culminating anguish, were blurred in the merciful unconsciousness in which they had ended. His brain was too dulled now to be acutely sensible of suffering, and still less of the presence of others in the body of the church – from which, indeed, the chapel was cut off by its position in a line with the high altar. He was alone in a great silence at the feet of the Mother of God, and he was not uncontent, gazing at her with the fixity of eyes only partly conscious of what they were looking at, until the twilight began to enshroud her.
When dusk had fallen came a surgeon and his assistant, and, after some parley, probed his injured limb and set and dressed it by the light of a couple of lanterns. Before the operation was over the young Royalist had fainted twice; at its beginning he had contrived to express an opinion that it was not worth the trouble of doing, and at its end the surgeon was much of the same advice.
“I would not have done it but for orders,” he muttered as he rose. “Poor devil! Since it is done, could one get some woman of the village to sit up with him to-night?”
“What! With a Chouan!” exclaimed his assistant. “Ma foi! not likely!” And the old surgeon, too busy to waste his time in useless commiseration, gathered up his tools and went.
A little later that evening, happening to meet his Commandant in the street, he was by him borne off to sup at the Maire’s, where that officer was quartered. And Adèle, presiding at her father’s table, found the talk veering round to the subject of the wounded Royalist prisoner.
“Well, if we took only one,” remarked the Commandant with some complacency, “he is at least an officer. By the way, was it not you who captured him, citoyenne? From the description I had from Captain Larive, I think it must have been you.”
“My daughter,” observed the Maire rather pompously, “though a good Republican as any, could not pass by the distress of an injured foe. The female heart, citizen Commandant, is ever thus constituted.”
“And well for us,” returned the soldier, “that it is so. A man might envy the Chouan. Citoyenne Adèle, I drink to Beauty’s charity!” And he lifted his glass with a bow to Adèle, who simpered becomingly, while the surgeon looked at her and had an idea.
He contrived to draw her aside after the meal.
“Citoyenne,” he said abruptly, “could you find it in your heart to do a further act of kindness?”
Adèle, who preferred the Commandant’s conversation, stared at him.
“I am sure I don’t know,” she replied impatiently. “What is it?”
“That poor devil of a Vendéan we picked up in the barley. He hasn’t a soul to look after him, and he needs it badly. I have more than enough of our own men to see to to-night.”
“You want me to go and sit up with him – to nurse him?”
M. Guillon nodded. “If you could manage it.”
“Thank you!” exclaimed the girl indignantly. “I have something better to do than to – – ” She stopped, feeling uncomfortable under his gaze. “Is he very ill?” she asked in a softer tone. “What should I have to do?”
He told her. She balanced the idea for a moment in her mind.
“Oh, I couldn’t!” she said at last, with a little shudder. “I feel quite faint when I think of that leg of his. . . . Perhaps when he is better. . . .”
The surgeon shrugged his shoulders and turned away. “You’ll not be wanted then, my girl,” he growled. “Confound them! They are all alike!”
And so Charles de Beaumanoir went alone through that night, and the next, and the next. It is true that he did not know it, and, indeed, in the midst of delirium many figures swept by him, and one stayed – a figure that in some way was always the same, though sometimes it wore the face of his mother, dead these many years, and sometimes of his betrothed wife, far away in England; and now it was a peasant girl’s; and once there stooped over him, with infinite pity in her eyes, a lady in a faded blue mantle and a tarnished crown.
During this period Adèle Moustier made occasional inquiries as to the progress of the wounded Vendéan, deriving a small but satisfying glow at the heart from her kind action. When one or two of her associates reproached her with her interest in this enemy of the nation, the glow was fanned into a momentary flame. She saw herself the traditional noble and womanly figure tending an injured foe. Penetrating the future, she beheld herself seated by the side of the wounded man, soothing him, talking to him, reading to him – when he was well enough to be soothed, talked to, and read to. This, she gathered, would not be for some time. There was a day when the surgeon, meeting her by chance, told her urgently that it would never be. She did not believe him; but as she sat before her glass that night, brushing out the thick fair hair which gave her so much pleasure, she thought a little of the Royalist and was sorry, though her principal feeling was annoyance that she should be asked to do ridiculous and impossible things in connection with him. However, the next day she had forgotten about him, and, as just at this time Lépine fils was being brought into great humiliation and subjection, it was with quite a little shock of surprise that she learnt, a few days later still, that the prisoner was out of danger.
And on that a sudden impulse seized Adèle. Having elicited from her informant, a woman of the village, that the Vendéan was quite conscious, and that his wounded leg was not visible, she presented herself the same afternoon at the church door with a small covered basket on her arm. A Republican soldier with his arm in a sling was smoking on the steps. He removed his pipe and stood aside for her to pass with a deferential air which made her pleasantly conscious of her errand of mercy. But when she questioned him as to the whereabouts of the captive, it was with visible surprise that he told her the brigand was in the ci-devant chapel of the ci-devant Virgin. Understanding this designation to apply to the chapel of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, Adèle slipped up the south aisle, endeavouring not to see any uncongenial sights. But there were not above a score of wounded remaining, and they were all in the nave, which, save for the presence of the dismantled high altar and the pillars, had the appearance of a rather ill-organised hospital.
The Vicomte de Beaumanoir was lying facing the entrance of the little side-chapel, and Adèle came upon him abruptly. Some charitable person had bestowed upon him a blanket and a coverlet, but his only pillow was a rolled-up military greatcoat, whose dark hue served admirably to enhance the drawn pallor of his features. He looked up full at Adèle, with bright and sunken eyes, but did not seem to know her. After a moment she went in and stood by him, and at that a look of recognition broke on his face.
“You have come . . . again!” he said, in a voice not much above a whisper.
“I am so sorry I have not come before,” responded Adèle – and at the moment she spoke the truth. “I . . . could not.”
“But you are here now!”
“I have brought you some soup,” went on the girl in an embarrassed voice, the gratitude in his eyes at once pleasing and reproaching her. “I am afraid it has got rather cold.”
But he could not feed himself, and so, after a little hesitation, she slipped an arm beneath his head and gave him the liquid spoonful by spoonful. “What a horrible pillow!” she remarked as she withdrew her arm. “Is that all you have had?”
“It did very well,” said the young man in his faint voice.
“I will bring you another,” said Adèle, putting the empty bowl into her basket. “I must go now; my father will be wanting me.” (M. le Maire was out for some hours.) “I will come again to-morrow, if I can.”
The Royalist said nothing, but his eyes followed her. She felt it, and went out of the church in great spirits.
Next day she brought the pillow in the best pillow-case she had. Was not her protégé a ci-devant? This time the young man’s face lit up with a smile as she appeared.
“Mademoiselle, you are too kind to a foe,” he murmured, in a voice perceptibly stronger than that of yesterday. “Mon Dieu, that is good!” He shut his eyes as his head sank back on the cool linen, and Adèle bundled the rejected greatcoat into a corner.
Coming back, she sat down on the altar-steps and looked at him. How different he was from Lépine, from the blacksmith’s nephew, even from the young notary at Doué! She wished that she knew who he was; and the simplest plan seemed to be to ask him.
“Would you mind telling me your name?” she said, for her a trifle timidly.
“Beaumanoir,” said the young man without opening his eyes. “Charles de Beaumanoir – the Vicomte de Beaumanoir when titles were in fashion.”
Adèle’s heart gave a little skip. She had been sure of it.
“And now you will tell me yours, Mademoiselle, will you not?” went on the Vendéan, opening his eyes and smiling at her; and she told him. His gaze roamed from her to the Madonna above her.
“There is another name that I should like to know,” he said. “What Virgin is that?”
“Oh, that’s Our Lady of Succour!” responded Adèle carelessly. “Nobody pays much heed to her now, though she used to have a great many devotees once.”
“I see – out of fashion!”
“Oh, more than that!” retorted Adèle. “Nobody of course believes in any bonne Vierge now – except the Blancs,” she added hastily.
“And I am a Blanc,” said Charles de Beaumanoir, smiling.
“I forgot,” said Adèle, a little confused. And she started from her seat on the steps, for a man was standing in the entrance to the little chapel. It was the old surgeon.
If Adèle was startled, he was astonished. “So you have come at last, citoyenne,” he said sardonically. “Well, since you are here, you can help me to dress this knee.”
Adèle gave one shuddering look at the roll of fresh dressings which he pulled out of his pocket, and fled past him without a word.
“Never do I go near that chapel again!” she exclaimed, as she arrived, hot with anger and speed, at her father’s door. Nevertheless, she woke next morning to a vague feeling of disappointment. She liked going to see her ci-devant, and it was a shame that she should be kept away. No doubt he would be expecting her. If she could only get a guarantee against further molestation she would yet go.
“Papa,” she said in the course of the morning, “I think you might invite that M. Guillon to supper.” And the Maire, a complacent parent, entirely unaware of his daughter’s works of mercy, obeyed her suggestion. Adèle succeeded in seeing the old surgeon alone for a moment as he was leaving.
“It is a pity, Monsieur Guillon,” she began in her best manner, “that you have prevented my going any more to see that poor young man. I think he . . . looked forward to my visits.”
“Very probably,” said the old man drily. “And how have I stopped them?”
“I have told you once,” responded the girl, with heat, “that I cannot, that I will not, have anything to do with his wound!”
“I thought you had changed your mind, Citoyenne Adèle. I beg your pardon. It shall not be suggested again. Moreover, it does not much matter.”
“And why not, pray?” asked Adèle. “Do you want him to die, after all?”
“He will not die of his wound, Mademoiselle,” returned M. Guillon.
His tone was so significant that Adèle was frightened. “What on earth do you mean?” she cried.
The old man bent a rather enigmatical glance upon her. “You had not thought of it? Yet you know the law against returned émigrés – and he is an émigré.”
Adèle slowly changed colour. “You mean that he will – that he will – – ”
“That he will be shot – when he is well enough,” returned the other grimly.
“It is not possible to do such a horrible thing!” said the girl in a low voice. “And you – how can you suffer it, after – – ”
“After doing my best to keep him alive?” He shrugged his shoulders. “I am under orders, Mademoiselle, like the rest of us. And I only heard it yesterday.”
He went, and Adèle spent the first sleepless night of her life.
Two days later Charles de Beaumanoir beheld his benefactress slip as before into the chapel. She deposited a basket on the altar-steps, threw him an oddly constrained little word of greeting, and went past him into the corner by the altar. Turning his head languidly, he saw her groping for something behind a piece of faded hanging. As she dropped the curtain and came back she met his gaze and flushed crimson, stood for a moment looking on the floor, turned, and walked slowly to the entrance to the chapel, then came as slowly back. A curious pallor sat on her smooth cheeks as she began to unfasten her basket.
“I have brought you nothing,” she began in a low uncertain voice. “It is only a pretext. You must go – you must get away at once. You will go, Monsieur le Vicomte, will you not?”
The Royalist smiled, a little sardonically. “I would do much to oblige you, Mademoiselle, but the difficulties – ”
“Oh, must you jest upon it!” cried Adèle, stung by his tone. “You shall go – I will help you. Do you know what they will do to you if you do not get away?”
“Yes, Mademoiselle,” said the Vicomte quietly, “I do. But I beg of you not to distress yourself.” For Adèle’s pretty lip was trembling; for a moment she had quite forgotten how unbecoming were tears – then, steadied by the thought, caught violently at her composure.
“Listen,” she said. “There is an old forgotten door out of this chapel, behind the hangings there. Between nine and ten to-night I will come to the door with a man and a cart. If you cannot drag yourself as far as the door I will come in and help you; they cannot see in from the church. Then Joseph will drive you under his load of hay to any point you wish where you will find friends – to St. Etienne, for instance, which is full of brig . . . of Royalists.”
“Useless!” said the captive. A momentary flush had however passed over his thin face. “How is a man to account for carting his hay that distance so late in the evening? It would only be to sacrifice another life.”
Adèle shook her head eagerly. “No one takes the slightest notice of what Joseph does. If he threw his hay into the pond, no one would be surprised. He is not – he is an idiot. But he will do anything for me, and nobody will stop him. If they did – if you were found even – no harm would come to him. They would not hold him responsible. I will swear it – by her if you wish.” She pointed to Our Lady of Succour.
Again the young Royalist’s gaze strayed up to the face of the Madonna and back to Adèle’s.
“And what of you?” he said.
“I shall not appear in it at all,” answered the girl. “Joseph will do what I tell him, and next day he will have forgotten all about it. No one will know anything of me. I shall just go home to bed, and next morning, when it is found out, I shall be more surprised than anybody.”
The young man gazed very hard at her, trying to find out if she were indeed speaking the truth. As a matter of fact, she was doing so; but whether the Vicomte would have ended by believing her was to remain in doubt, for, perhaps fortunately for Adèle’s scheme, the advent of M. Guillon stopped further protest or argument, and Adèle, whispering, “Be ready at nine!” fled as on a previous occasion.
The hours thereafter were leaden-footed and weighted with a thousand warring emotions, and yet in the end the sound of a turned handle made Charles de Beaumanoir’s heart beat like the suddenest of surprises. The hangings moved slightly. In the dim light from the body of the church, supplemented scarcely at all by the ineffectual little lantern set on the altar-steps, a muffled black figure slipped to his side.
Adèle bent over him so low that her drapery touched his face, and with her lips at his ear whispered, “You must try to do with me alone to help you out. Joseph is so clumsy; he would make too much noise. Do not make a sound!”
Silently, and fighting back the anguish every least movement cost him, he got to one knee – helped by her strong arms, to his feet. His head swam with the pain, and fell back for a moment uncertainly on her shoulder. “Courage,” she whispered, “it is such a little way”; and together, infinitely slowly, they traversed the few yards that separated them from freedom.
Outside loomed Joseph’s cart. The owner, a lanky figure whose face in the darkness was indistinguishable, took hold of the Vendéan on the other side.
“How shall we see to get him into the cart?” asked Adèle. “You have no light, Joseph? There’s a lantern in the chapel; I’ll get that.” She withdrew her support.
When at last the Vicomte was got into the wagon he was far too spent with physical pain to care whether the remainder of his flight accomplished itself or not. Yet as Adèle knelt above him in the cart, and piled the hay hastily over his body, her face a spectral whiteness in the gloom, he groped suddenly for her hand and carried it to his lips. But Adèle bent and kissed him on the mouth. Then, blushing furiously, she scrambled without a word from the cart and ran back to the chapel door.
As the cart moved slowly away she reflected. It was no less than the truth that she ran little risk of detection; had it been otherwise she would not have done what she had done. Furthermore, she knew that even were her complicity discovered she would not pay the penalty. Her father might bluster, but he was not a Roman parent. At the present moment, however, she was faced by an unforeseen difficulty – that of covering, for the next hour, the prisoner’s absence. She had unexpectedly learnt that a sergeant made the round of the church at ten o’clock, and the sight of the empty pallet would inevitably lead to a pursuit which, in the morning, would be too late. To prevent premature discovery was almost as much to her interest as to the Vendéan’s.
The church clock chiming a quarter to ten above her head sent her thoughts scurrying. Panting with a sudden sense of pursuit, she slid through the door and closed it noiselessly behind her. All was quiet in the church save for the voice of a wounded man down the nave, who was talking in sleep or delirium. Invisible in the gloom of the empty chapel, she stood by the deserted pallet, tore off her cap and thrust it into her pocket, and, swiftly unpinning them, shook down her fair locks, so that her head at least should bear some little resemblance to the fugitive’s. Then she lay down on the mattress and drew the rough covering well over her.
Sergeant Michel Bernard was by nature a punctual man, and, moreover, he was anxious to get back to the game of cards in which he had been interrupted. The last stroke of the hour had scarcely died away before Adèle heard, down the nave, the whine of the inner leather door. Footfalls, which gradually disentangled themselves into those of two men, came up the aisle, pausing for a second – it seemed a year – at the entrance to the chapel, and passing thence round the other chapel at the back of the high altar. Adèle breathed freely again. But in a moment she heard the footsteps stop, hesitate, and return, and in the stillness the sergeant’s voice remarking gruffly to his subordinate:
“What the devil has the ci-devant done with his light? It was there at half-past eight.”
Adèle’s heart died within her. She had forgotten the lantern; it was still outside, and the men were evidently coming to see what had become of it. If they looked at her closely they must see in a minute that she was not what she pretended to be. She cowered under the blanket, holding it over her face. The heavy boots stumbled past her.
“Sacré nom d’un nom! Where can it have got to?”
“What does it matter?” asked the younger soldier, yawning noisily. “Perhaps the aristo prefers the dark.”
“Even if he does he can’t have eaten the lantern! He could not even have reached it.”
“Dame! Then it’s one of the other ci-devant’s miracles,” suggested his companion, pointing laughingly to the Madonna. “Perhaps she has taken it away to please him.”
“It means that someone has been here,” said the sergeant, glancing suspiciously round the chapel.
“La petite Moustier, perhaps?”
“Impossible. I saw her leave at dusk, and there is no door open.”
The younger man yawned again. “Confound your lanterns, sergeant, and confound this Loire wine – how sleepy it makes a man! Ask the Chouan himself, and have done with it. Here, I’ll ask him.”
He came, and, stooping over Adèle, shook her lightly by the shoulder.
“Wake up, dog of a Vendéan, and tell us what you have done with your lantern!” Laughter and sleep strove in his voice. “Doesn’t he sleep soundly? Wake up, aristo! . . . I say, sergeant, supposing he’s slipped off the hooks. . . . Just hold your light here a moment, will you?”
The lantern lifted above the supposed sleeper revealed nothing but the top of a fair head. There was, however, a curious tension about the upper folds of the blanket – a phenomenon which unhappily invited scrutiny.
“I wonder why he sleeps like that,” observed the loquacious subordinate, and he gave a little tug to the blanket. It remained fixed in its place even more firmly than before.
“Pull it down!” suddenly thundered the sergeant. “Off with it! By God – – !”
The oath coincided with Adèle’s scream as the covering was wrenched from her clutch.
M. de Beaumanoir did not often go to Paris. Possibly he found Restoration Paris not much to his taste. Once in two or three years, however, he would come up from Anjou to visit a relative (being especially dear to the younger generation), to transact an hour or so’s business, and to bring back a new silk dress for his housekeeper to the rather grim and tidy dwelling where years of her excellent precision had something effaced the traces of that little Eustacie de Soleure who had once ruled it so happily and so carelessly. That all too brief episode seemed now as far away as the other which had made it possible; but it lived ineffaceably, like the other, in the memory of Madame de Seignelay’s hero. It was too sacred and too poignant to be often looked at. . . . The other, too, had the salt of pain to keep it alive. For strange reports had got afloat in the countryside about the consequences of Adèle’s exploit. Some said that her father had turned her out of doors, others that he had beaten her within an inch of her life, others that she had been sent to the prisons of Nantes as a favourer of aristocrats. A still more dramatic version had it that she had only escaped shooting, in the place of the man she had saved, by the intercession of a Republican officer. In time, and by indirect routes, these rumours came, strangely intertwined, to the ears of Charles de Beaumanoir, painfully dragging out a long convalescence in the Bocage. He was wild with self-reproach; but there was nothing that he could do – nothing except to remember all his life, not so much that he owed that life itself to a woman’s compassion, as that in his debt to the little peasant girl of Cezay-la-Fontaine lay those short and radiant years of his married happiness. And he had always remembered.
However, when the Vicomte did happen to be in Paris he would pay a species of state visit to the Opéra, accompanied thereto usually by a niece or two, but going sometimes by himself, and feeling, on such occasions, very much alone in the midst of a new and somewhat alien type of society. It was on some such thought as this that he glanced round the house one evening in the spring of 1824 between the acts of Gluck’s “Armida.” It was something of a gala night; the latest star was singing, and the effect of so many brilliant toilettes and sparkling orders was quite dazzling to a provincial. Yet, looking up at a box above him, the Vicomte saw with amazement a smiling young face that he knew. It was that of the little Vendéenne to whom he used to tell stories, eight years agone and more, in an old house at Angers. And from her box Madame de Seignelay, the bride of a few months, saw and recognised her old friend, too.
“There is my dear Monsieur de Beaumanoir!” she cried to her husband. “How delightful to see him again! Make him come up, Georges – I positively must speak to him.” And, all sparkling with youth and excitement, she signalled to Charles de Beaumanoir with her fan.
The Vicomte came, with his well-remembered little limp, as handsome as ever, but a little greyer and older. The sight of her charming and irregular young face, displaying so plainly its pleasure at seeing him again, warmed his heart as he bent and kissed Madame de Seignelay’s hand. And she, as he sat by her, began on the instant to ply him with a hundred questions, contriving between a score of “Don’t you remembers?” to interpolate a quantity of vivacious information about her neighbours.
“You say you know nobody, Vicomte? I do not believe it. You must know Monsieur de Chateaubriand by sight; and that is the great Duchesse de Carentan down in the box a little to the left of you. You know she tries to keep a salon à la Rambouillet under his present Majesty. Oh, and do you see the stout lady with the diamonds and the pink satin à faire frémir, almost opposite, on the other side of the house? Is she not terrible?”
“You cannot expect an old man to have as good eyes as you, madame,” responded M. de Beaumanoir. “I can see a quantity of pink satin, it is true, but I can hardly distinguish features from here. Who is the lady, then, since she is fortunate enough to interest you?”
Madame de Seignelay laughed. “I don’t know who she was originally – some shopkeeper’s daughter, I fancy – but they say she has already changed her name three times, so that her natal one is quite securely buried by now. She is the wife of Brunner – the Brunner, you know, who made his fortune out of commissariat contracts under the Corsican. Now he has more money than he knows what to do with; but I daresay he manages to get rid of a good deal on his wife’s diamonds. . . . But here is the curtain going up; I must not talk any more.”
A little later the brilliant and laughing throng was emptying itself down the staircases into the foyer. Not the least merry there was the little Vendéenne as she came down on the arm of her childhood’s hero.
“Come home and sup with us, Vicomte,” she whispered as they got to the bottom. “You will not? But I cannot lose you again so soon. – Ah, there is the pink lady again. . . . Georges, do try and persuade M. de Beaumanoir to return with us to supper.”
In the crush at the foot of the staircase Madame Brunner, penned with her spouse into an angle, was fanning herself with great violence. As she jerked her head about, a magnificent diamond ornament scintillated on the hard golden hair above her vulgar, red, not ill-tempered face, and myriads of points of light shot out from a similar collar round her fat throat. Her loud voice, the gleam of her jewels, and the overpowering hue of her gown drew the eye in spite of itself, and Charles de Beaumanoir, wedged at a little distance, looked, like the rest.
Suddenly Madame de Seignelay felt the arm on which her hand was resting tremble violently. She had been speaking over her shoulder to her husband, and turned round to her escort in concern.
“Are you ill? What is it?” she asked in a low voice, frightened by the face at which she looked up.
The genuine alarm in her voice steadied M. de Beaumanoir as scarcely anything else could have done.
“It was the heat – for a moment,” he replied, wrenching his gaze away and bringing it down to her. “Ah, they are moving in front. Shall we go on too?”
And with the little bride on his arm he made his way out in the wake of Adèle Brunner and her diamonds.
As he put her into her carriage – “Are you recovered?” whispered Madame de Seignelay. “You frightened me; I declare I thought you had seen a ghost!”
The Vicomte smiled a very melancholy little smile. “My dear,” he said gently, “perhaps I have. . . .”
But it was scarcely a ghost which Fate had shown him in that cruel glimpse; for a ghost is linked with the past, and Charles de Beaumanoir had seen little enough in that prosperous and unlovely vision to connect it with the memory of her whom for more than thirty years he had idealised as Our Lady of Succour.
Ramparts fence about the fields of Brittany – banks of six feet high, crowned not with a hedge, but with a serried wall of forest trees, impassable to an enemy when defenders use it for cover. And on an evening in the early June of 1795, just after the snapping of the uneasy truce of La Mabilais, a score of Chouans stood, scrambled, climbed, and knelt upon a stockade of this description, firing at an unseen foe whose bullets sang through the leaves or thudded into the bank. Bretons all, in loose breeches and gaiters, in the short jackets – black, blue and yellow, or white – each with its double rank of buttons and the Sacred Heart, with long hair and stern harsh features, they gave to the business in hand nothing, indeed, of the mechanical regularity of veteran troops, but all of their sangfroid. One alone, on his knees at the top of the bank, who wore a white scarf round his waist, paused occasionally between firing and reloading and, peering through the tree-trunks, shouted a direction or two; while, a few steps away from the bank, an old man of gigantic stature, kneeling on one knee, wrestled with the lock of his damaged musket. A grim smile was on his face, for a sudden gush of bright chestnut leaves, trickling from aloft, had just shown him how high the slackening Republican fire was becoming. The hot three-quarters of an hour was approaching its end. He ceased for a moment to struggle with his weapon and ran his eye along the row of absorbed backs in front of him. The smoke of their own last volley was lifting; would it be answered? . . .
A sharp and venomous discharge split the silence. The old man dropped his musket and sprang to his feet. “Seigneur Dieu! He is hit!”
The young Breton with the white scarf, suddenly carrying both hands quickly to his head, had toppled backwards, and now, slipping heavily from the summit of the bank, rolled over till he lay on his face at its foot.
The old giant had pounced on him almost before the marksmen next their leader had realised his fall.
“Ma Doué! don’t stop firing!” he shouted. “It is nothing – a spent bullet. Jean-Marie, you can come – no one else.”
And, picking up his young commander, he carried him to a little distance, and laid him down among the broom, his face a tragic mask of tenderness and anxiety.
“Hervé! Hervé! my little one . . . it is not possible. . . . Here, Jean-Marie, give me something to tie up his head.”
“It is no good,” said the other man in a horror-stricken whisper. “It is the end – he has a bullet through his brain for sure.”
“I tell you no,” responded his elder angrily, but in a breaking voice. “It is only that there is so much blood. . . .”
And hurriedly, with trembling hands, he tried to staunch the stream pouring from some disastrous source in the dark hair. Meanwhile it spoke many things for the discipline of guerrilla troops devotedly attached to their leader that not a single Chouan had left his post at the hedge to allay his anxiety. The Breton marksmen were firing furiously and revengefully; only now and again would one turn his head over his shoulder and snatch a look at the little group behind him.
“God have mercy on us!” exclaimed the old man at last. “It is impossible to tell. I must get him away. . . . Undo his sash, Jean-Marie, that will serve.”
Jean-Marie did as he was bid, and together they tied the silk tightly round the bleeding head, with a handful of moss for a pad.
“Now,” said the old man, “go back to your place, Jean-Marie, and see that no one stirs from the bank till the Blues draw off. It is only a question of time. And as for M. Hervé – ask them if they think that l’Invincible can be killed by a mere bullet?”
“You will take him – where?”
“Chez nous. Do not ask me if I can carry him, nephew!” added the old man, with a fierce gleam in his extraordinarily blue eyes. “You will come back when it is all over – or I shall meet you with the saints. Now to your place!” He waved an imperious hand at the bank, and Jean-Marie ran back.
Then Yves le Guerric, murmuring in one breath curses, prayers and little words of love, gathered up his wounded foster-son and leader like a child, and strode off through the broom. He carried in his strong old arms most of his heart, and the brilliant fighter who was the hope of the Royalist cause between Pontivy and Quimperlé – the Comte Hervé de St-Armel, called l’Invincible.
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