Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
Baroness Emmuska Orczy
FIRE IN STUBBLE
Or, The Noble Rogue
First published in 1912
Copyright © 2018 Classica Libris
This act is an ancient tale new told.
Monsieur Legros, tailor-in-chief to His Majesty Louis XIV and to the Court of Paris and Versailles, bowed himself out of the room; with back bent nearly double, and knees trembling in the effort, he receded towards the door even whilst Monseigneur the Archbishop spoke a final and encouraging benediction.
“Have no fear, my good Monsieur Legros,” pronounced Monseigneur with urbane kindness, “your affairs shall come under the special notice of the Holy Father. Be of good cheer, right and justice are on your side. Solemn vows cannot be flouted even in these days of godlessness. Go in peace, my son; you are dismissed.”
“And if the Holy Father — hem — I mean if Monseigneur would take cognizance of the fact — hem — that I will place—” stammered Monsieur Legros with some confusion. “I mean, Monseigneur — that is — I am a man of substance — and if the sum of fifty thousand francs — or — or a hundred thousand—”
“Nay, my son, what would you suggest?” quoth Monseigneur with a slight lifting of elegantly-arched brows. “The thought of money doth not enter into the decrees of the Holy Father.”
“I know — I know, Monseigneur,” said Monsieur Legros with ever-growing confusion. “I only thought—”
“An you thought, my son, of pleasing God by the bestowal of alms in these days of licentiousness and of evil luxury, then by all means do so in accordance with your substance — I will see to the proper distribution of those alms, good Master Legros — the two hundred thousand francs you speak of shall be worthily bestowed, our promise thereon.”
Monsieur Legros did not think of protesting. The sum mentioned by Monseigneur was a heavy one in these days, when the working and trading classes had but little left for their own pleasures once the tax collector had passed their way. But the worthy tailor had made no idle boast when he said that he was a man of substance; he was well able to pay a goodly sum for the gratification of his most cherished desire.
He received his final congé almost on his knees, then he disappeared through the doorway. Lacqueys to the right of him, lacqueys to the left of him, lacqueys all the way along the carpeted stairs down to the massive front door, formed a living avenue through which Monsieur Legros now passed with his back not yet fully straightened out after its many humble curvatures.
Soon he reached the narrow, ill-ventilated street on which gave the great gates of Monseigneur the Archbishop’s palace. Instinctively Monsieur Legros gave a deep sigh of content and relief, inhaling the fresh autumnal air which could not altogether be excluded-even from these close purlieus where roof almost met roof overhead, and evil-smelling gutters overflowed along the roughly-constructed pavements.
The good master tailor had succeeded passing well in his momentous errand. Monseigneur had been overgracious, and two hundred thousand francs was after all only a small sum to come out of Rose Marie’s ample marriage portion. Monsieur Legros now walked with a brisk step along the right bank of the Seine, then crossing the Pont Neuf he found himself near the Châtelet prison, and thence by narrow by-paths at his own front door in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie.
Here he gave a sharp rap with the polished brass knocker, and within a very few seconds the door was opened and an anxious feminine voice hailed him from out the ‘ darkness of the narrow passage.
“Eh bien? Monseigneur? What did he say?”
Monsieur Legros closed the door behind him with great deliberation, then he turned, stretched out both arms and, catching the speaker round the shoulders, imprinted two well sounding kisses on a pair of fresh young cheeks.
“He says,” said the worthy bonhomme gaily, “that Rose Marie, the fairest maid in France, shall be called Countess of Stowmaries before the year is out, for right and justice and indissoluble marriage vows are all on her side.”
A little gasp — which sounded almost like a hysterical sob — broke from the woman’s throat. It seemed as if the news — evidently very anxiously expected — was overwhelmingly good. There was silence in the little passage for a moment, then the fresh voice, now quite cheerful and steady, said lightly:
“Let us go and tell maman!”
Together father and daughter went up the steep, slightly-winding stair which led to an upper story. Rose Marie, silent once more, felt as if her young heart would presently burst through her corselet, so rapidly did it beat with excitement and anticipation.
She followed her father into the large, cheerful-looking room which gave on the first landing. Here a bright fire blazed in an open hearth; blue cotton curtains hung on each side of the single, narrow window, through which the last rays of this October day struggled faintly.
A large iron stewpot, from which escaped a jet of savoury-smelling steam, stood invitingly upon the hob, and beside the hearth, wooden spoon in hand, her ample proportions carefully draped in a thick brown linen apron, stood Madame Legros herself, the wife of one of the wealthiest men in the whole of Paris.
“Eh bien! Legros, ’tis good news then?” she asked with cheerful optimism, whilst a benevolent smile shone all over her round face, red as an Eydam cheese and quite as shiny and greasy, for Madame had been cooking and she was mightily hot.
“The best, Maman,” came in hilarious accents from her husband, “our daughter shall be installed in her English castle before many moons are over. The Holy Father himself will interfere, and this — this — milord Stowmaries will have to obey at once — failing which ‘twill be excommunication and nothing less than that.”
Monsieur Legros had thrown himself into the tall-backed chair, black with age and the smoke from many a previous stewpot, and had stretched out his legs before him, in order that his dutiful daughter Rose Marie might the more easily divest him of his high out-door boots.
Kneeling before her father, she performed this little service for him with all the grace of loving girlhood, and he cocked his cropped head on one side and looked down at her with eyes in which merriment struggled with happy tears.
She was so good to look at as she knelt thus on one knee, her fair hair — touched with the gold of the sun of her native Provence — falling in thick ringlets round her young face. She was so girlish and so pure, fresh as the hawthorn in May, and withal luscious to behold like a ripening fruit in June.
“Nay! nay!” said Monsieur Legros with mock gravity, as he put his now stockinged feet to the ground and rose with a great show of ceremony, “this is no place for Madame la comtesse of Stowmaries. She must not kneel at any man’s feet, not even at those of her fond old father. Come to my arms, my girl,” he added, once more resuming his seat, his voice breaking in the vain endeavour to seem flippant, “sit here on my knee. Maman, for the Lord’s sake put down that spoon, and sit down like a Christian and I’ll tell you both all that Monseigneur said to me.”
With a happy little sigh Rose Marie jumped to her feet. Obviously her young heart was still too full for speech. She had said nothing, practically, since her first greeting to her father, since she had heard from him the good news — the confirmation of her hopes.
Her cheeks were glowing until they quite ached with the throbbing of the veins beneath the delicate skin, and the palms of her hands felt cold and damp with suppressed nervousness and excitement.
Obedient to her father’s call, she came close to him and perched herself on his knee, whilst his arm sought her slender waist and clung to it with all the gentle firmness born of his fond paternal love, of his pride in the beauty and grace of his child.
Madame Legros — somewhat reluctantly — had pulled the stewpot further away from the fire, and put her wooden spoon aside. Then she sat down opposite her lord and her daughter and said blandly:
“I am listening.”
“Monseigneur was most affable,” now began Monsieur Legros, speaking with some pride at the recollection of his late reception in the Archbishop’s palace, “but from the first he bade me to be brief, so as I had rehearsed the whole scene in my mind over and over again, and knew exactly what I wished to say to His Greatness, I was able to put our case before him in the most direct, most straightforward way possible. Now if you will listen very attentively and not interrupt me I will tell you word for word just what passed between Monseigneur and myself.”
“Go on, Armand,” said Madame, “I am burning with impatience and I’ll promise not to interrupt.”
As for Rose Marie, she said nothing, but from the expression in her eyes, it was obvious that she would listen attentively.
“Monseigneur sat at his desk and he was pleased to tell me to be seated. Then he said: ‘Commence, my son; I am all attention.’ He fixed his eyes upon me and I then began my narrative. ‘My wife had a distant relative,’ I said, ‘married to an officer in the army of the English king. At a time of great pecuniary distress this fashionable lady bethought herself of her connection with the humble tailor of Paris and wrote to him an amiable letter suggesting a visit to his modest home.’ That was so, was it not, Maman?” he asked, turning for confirmation to his buxom wife.
“Exactly so, Armand,” she replied in assent, “except that the fashionable lady was at pains not to tell us that her husband was in prison for debt over in England and that she herself was almost destitute — and to think that I was such a simpleton as not to guess at the truth when she arrived with her little boy, and he with his shoes all in holes and—”
“Easy — easy, Melanie,” rejoined Monsieur Legros tartly.
“Am I telling you my adventures of this afternoon, or am I not?”
“But of a truth thou art telling us, Armand,” replied fat Madame Legros blandly.
“Then I pray you to remember that I said I would not be interrupted, else I shall lose the thread of my narration.”
“But thou didst ask me a question, Armand, and I did answer.”
“Then do not answer at such lengths, Melanie,” quoth the tailor sententiously, “or I shall be an hour getting through my tale, and that savoury stew yonder will be completely spoilt.”
Harmony being thus restored under threat of so terrible a contingency, Monsieur Legros now resumed his narrative.
“I did tell Monseigneur,” he said with reproachful emphasis, “that at the time that Mistress Angélique Kestyon came on a visit to us in company with her small son, then aged six and a half years, but without nurse, serving or tiring woman of any kind, we were quite unaware of the distressful position in which she was, and in which she had left her lord and master over in England. I then explained to Monseigneur how Mistress Kestyon seemed overpleased with the grace and beauty of our own child Rose Marie, who had just passed through her first birthday. She would insist on calling the wench Rosemary, pronouncing the name in an outlandish fashion, and saying that in England it stood for remembrance. A pretty conceit enough, seeing that our Rose Marie once seen would surely never be forgotten.”
And a vigorous pressure on Rose Marie’s waist brought an additional glow to the girl’s bright eyes.
“At this point,” continued Monsieur Legros, “it pleased Monseigneur to show such marked interest in my story, that he appeared quite impatient and said with a show of irritation — which could but be flattering to me:— ‘Yes! yes! my son, but there is no need to give me all these trifling details. I understand that you are rich, are of somewhat humble calling, and have a daughter, and that the English lady was poor, if highborn, and had a son. Ergo! the children were betrothed.’ Which, methinks showed vast penetration on the part of Monseigneur,” added the worthy bonhomme naively, “and gracious interest in my affairs. Whereupon, warming to my narrative, I exclaimed: ‘Not only betrothed, Monseigneur, but married with the full rites and ceremonials of our Holy Church as by law prescribed. My wife and I — so please Your Greatness — thought of the child’s future. It has pleased God to bless my work and to endow me with vast wealth which in the course of time will all pass to our Rose Marie. But here in France, the great gentlemen would always look askance at the daughter of the man who made their coats and breeches; not so in England where trade, they say, is held in high esteem, and in order that our child should one day be as great a lady as any one in the land and as noble as she is beautiful, we wedded her to a high and mighty well-born English gentleman, who was own great nephew to one of the most illustrious noblemen in that fog-ridden country — the Earl of Stowmaries, so he is called over there, Monseigneur!’ and you may be sure,” continued Monsieur Legros, “that I mentioned this fact with no small measure of pride.”
“Well, and what did His Greatness say to that?” queried Madame Legros, who would not curb her impatience, even for those few seconds whilst her man paused in order to take breath.
“Monseigneur did not seem overpleased at seeing me display quite so much pride in empty titles and meaningless earthly dignities,” rejoined Monsieur Legros lightly. “His Greatness was pleased to rebuke me and to inform me that he himself was well acquainted with the distinguished English family who bears the name of Kestyon of Stowmaries. The Kestyons are all good Catholics and Monseigneur thought that this fact was of far greater importance than their worldly honours and their ancient lineage, and should have weighed much more heavily with us, Maman, when we chose a husband for our daughter.”
“We should not have given Rose Marie to a Protestant, Armand; you should have told that to Monseigneur. No, not if he had been the King of England himself,” retorted Madame Legros indignantly.
“The King of England is as good a Catholic as any of us, so ’tis said,” commented Monsieur Legros, “but this is a digression, and I pray you, Mélanie, not to interrupt me again. I felt that His Greatness had lapsed into a somewhat irritable mood against me, which no doubt I fully deserved, more especially as Monseigneur did not then know — but ’tis I am digressing now,” resumed the good man after a slight hesitation. “In less time than I can repeat it all, I had told Monseigneur how directly after the marriage ceremony had been performed, we found out how grossly we had been deceived, that le Capitaine Kestyon, the husband of Mistress Angélique, had been in a debtor’s prison in London all the time that his wife was bragging to us about his high position and his aristocratic connections; we heard that the great Earl of Stowmaries not only refused to have anything to do with his nephew, who was a noted rogue and evil-doer, but that he had a son and three grandsons of his own, so that there were a goodly number of direct inheritors to his great title and vast estates. All this and more we heard after our darling child had been indissolubly tied to the son of the best-known scoundrel in the whole of England, and who moreover was penniless, deeply in debt, and spent the next ten years in extracting our hard-earned money from out our pockets.”
The recollection of those same ten years seemed to have even now a terrible effect on the temper of Monsieur Legros. Indignation at the memories his own last words evoked seemed momentarily to choke him. He pulled a voluminous and highly-coloured handkerchief from the pocket of his surcoat and moped his perspiring forehead, for choler had made him warm.
Madame Legros — equally indignant in retrospect but impatient to hear Monseigneur’s final pronouncement on the great subject — was nervously rapping a devil’s tattoo on the table. Rose Marie’s fair head had fallen forward on her breast. She had said nothing all along, but sat on her father’s knee, listening with all her ears, for was not he talking about the people who would be her people henceforth, the land which would be her land, the man who of a truth was her lord and husband? But when Legros, with just indignation, recalled the deceits, the shifts, the mean, mercenary actions of those whose name she would bear through life, then the blush of excitement seemed to turn into one of shame, and two heavy tears fell from her eyes onto her tightly clasped hands.
“Father, Father!” cried fat Madame Legros in horror, “cannot you see that you have made the child cry?”
“Then heaven punish me for a blundering ass,” exclaimed Legros, with renewed cheerfulness. “Nay! nay! my little cabbage, there’s naught to cry for now; have I not said that all is well? Those ten years are past and done with and eight more lie on the top of them — and if Monseigneur showed some impatience both at my pride and at my subsequent indignation, he was vastly interested, I can tell you that, when he heard that the son and three grandsons of the great English nobleman were by the will of God wrecked while pleasure-cruising together off the coast of Spain and all four of them drowned, and that the old lord himself did not long survive the terrible catastrophe, which had swept four direct inheritors of his vast wealth and ancient name off the face of the earth and into the sea. His Greatness became quite excited — and vastly amiable to me:— ‘Ah!’ he said, ‘then surely — you can not mean—?’ You see Monseigneur was so interested he scarce could find his words. ‘Yes, so please Your Greatness,’ quoth I with becoming dignity, ‘the husband of our Rose Marie, the son of the capitaine who in life had been nought but a rogue, has inherited the title and the wealth of his great-uncle. He is now styled by the English the Earl of Stowmaries and Rivaulx, Baron of Edbrooke and of Saumaresque, and he has many other titles besides, and one of the richest men in the whole of England!’ ‘Mais, comment done!’ exclaims Monseigneur, most affably, and you’ll both believe me, an you will, but I give you my word that His Greatness took my hand and shook it, so pleased did he seem with what I had told him. ‘We must see the lovely Comtesse of Stowmaries! Eighteen years ago, did you say, my son? and she was a baby then! The decrees of God are marvellous, of a truth! And your Rose Marie a great English lady now, eh? — with a quantity of money and a great love for the Church! By the Mass, my son, we must arrange for a solemn Te Deum to be sung at St. Etienne, before the beautiful comtesse leaves the sunny shores of France for her fog-wrapped home across the sea!’ Nay! but His Greatness said much more than that He spoke of the various forms which our thank offering might take, the donations which would be most acceptable to God on this occasion; he mentioned the amount of money which would most adequately express the full meed of our gratitude to Providence, by being given to the Church, and I most solemnly assure you that he simply laughed at the very thought of the Earl of Stowmaries contemplating the non-fulfilment of his marriage vows. I pointed out to His Greatness that the young man seemed inclined to repudiate the sacred bond. We had not seen him since the ceremony eighteen years ago, and after our final refusal to further help his parents with money or substance, we had even ceased to correspond. His parents had gone to live in some far, very far-off land across the ocean, where I believe cannibals and such like folk do dwell. They had taken the boy with them, of course. We thought the young man dead, or if alive then as great a rogue as his father, and mourned that our only child was either a girl-widow, or the wife of a reprobate. “Tis eighteen years,’ I said, ‘since those marriage vows were spoken.’
‘Were they fifty,’ retorted His Greatness, ‘they would still be sacred. The Catholic Church would scorn to tie a tie which caprice of man could tear asunder. Nay! nay!’ he added with sublime eloquence, ‘ have no fear on this matter, my son. Unless the Earl of Stowmaries chooses to abjure the faith of his fathers, and thereby cause his own eternal damnation, he cannot undo the knot which by the will of his parents — he being a minor at the time — tied him indissolubly to your daughter.’ Thus spoke His Greatness, Monseigneur the Archbishop of Paris,” concluded Monsieur Legros, with becoming solemnity, “and in such words will the message be conveyed to the man who by all laws human and divine is the husband of Rose Marie Dieudonnée Legros, our only and dearly loved child.”
There was silence in the small room now. The fast-gathering twilight had gradually softened all sharp outlines, covering every nook and cranny with a mantle of gloom and leaving the dying embers of the fire to throw a warm glow over the group of these homely folk: fat Madame Legros in cooking apron of coarse linen, her round, moist face pale with excitement, the sleeves of her worsted gown rolled back over her shapely arms; the kindly tailor with rubicund face gleaming with pride and paternal love, one arm still encircling the cherished daughter whose future had been mapped out by him on such glorious lines, and she, the girl — a mere child, fair and slender, with great, innocent eyes which mirrored the pure, naïve soul within, eyes which still looked the outer world boldly in the face, which had learned neither to shrink in terror, nor yet to waver in deceit, a child with rosy, moist lips which had not yet tasted the sweet and bitter savour of a passionate kiss.
The silence became almost oppressive, for Madame Legros dared not speak again, lest she irritate the mightily clever man whom God had pleased to give her as husband, and Rose Marie was silent because, unknown even to herself, in the far-off land of Shadows, the Fates who sit and spin the threads of life had taken in their grim and relentless hands the first ravellings of her own.
Vaguely now, for her ears were buzzing, she heard her father speak again, talking of Monseigneur’s graciousness, of the intervention of the French ambassador at the Court of the King of England, of an appeal to the Holy Father who would command that the great English milord shall acknowledge as his sole and lawful wife, Rose Marie Legros, the daughter of the Court tailor of Paris.
It was so strange — almost uncanny, this intervention of great and clever gentlemen, of Monseigneur the Archbishop of Paris, whom hitherto she had only seen at a great distance passing through the streets in his glass coach or celebrating High Mass at the great altar in Notre Dame, of the King of England, whom she had once seen at a pageant in Versailles, actually talking to young King Louis himself, the greatest man in the whole world and most wonderful of all, of the Holy Father, second only on earth to le bon Dieu Himself — all, all of these great and marvellous people troubling about her, Rose Marie.
For the moment she could not bear to think of it all, and she supposed that she must outwardly have looked as strange as she felt herself to be from within, for maman suggested that the child was overwrought and must go to her room, where presently she should partake of fricassée of chicken and a glass of good red wine with a little clove and cinnamon in it, the panacea, in good Madame Legros’ estimation, for every ailment of body, mind or heart.
True hope is swift, and flies with swallows’ wings;
Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.
Richard III V. 2.
Rose Marie hardly knew how she reached the tiny room up under the sloping roof, which room was her very own.
She only realised that she longed to be alone to think matters out all by herself, and then to indulge in a long and happy cry.
Oh, yes! she was quite, quite sure that she was very happy, and that it was because of this great happiness which filled her heart to bursting, that she felt so very much inclined to cry.
Presently maman came in with the red wine and the fricassée and was horrified to find the child in tears.
“My pigeon, my little cabbage, but what ails thee, my jewel?” ejaculated the good old soul, as she hastily put down the platter and bottle which she was carrying and went to kneel beside the narrow bed in the wall, from the depths of which came ominous sounds of a girl sobbing.
“Nothing, Maman, nothing!” said Rose Marie, smiling at her mother’s anxiety and hastily endeavouring to dry her tears.
“Nothing — nothing—” grumbled Madame Legros, “one does not cry for nothing, my child—”
“And I am vastly silly, Maman, for doing it — but I assure you that it is nothing — and — and—”
The young voice broke in renewed sobs, and two arms were stretched forth from out the bed and sought the mother’s kindly shoulder, whereon a strangely overburdened childish heart could sob itself out in perfect peace.
“There! there! my little cabbage,” said Madame Legros, trying with tender pattings of the soft fair hair to soothe this well-nigh hysterical outburst, “of a truth, thou hast been overwrought, and it was not right for father to speak of all this before thee. Thou didst not know that the young English lord had endeavoured to break his marriage vows, and that thy father and I have been working hard in order to bring influence to bear upon the rogue. Fortunately now we have succeeded, with the help of Monseigneur, so there is no need to cry, my cabbage, is there?”
“No, no, Maman, it is not that,” said the girl more quietly, “I cannot quite explain to you what it is that made me cry — for I have known all along that milord — now that he is a milord and passing rich — was anxious to forget us humble folk, who helped his parents in their need — I have felt the shame of that before now, and it never made me cry. But today — somehow — Maman, darling,” she added, sitting up quite straight in bed and looking at her mother with enquiring eyes, whilst her fine brow was puckered in a deep frown of thought, “somehow I feel — I cannot quite explain how it is — I feel as if my old life was finished — quite, quite finished — as if nothing would ever be quite the same again — my little room here, the pink curtains, that chair over there — they do not seem the same — not quite, quite the same — Maman, chérie, I suppose you don’t understand?”
And the great childish eyes sought anxiously the mother’s face, longing for comprehension, for the explanation of an unaccountable mystery.
“No, my pigeon, I confess I do not understand,” quoth worthy Madame Legros drily, “for I do not see — nor would any sensible person admit — that a great English milord just because he is thy husband — can from all that distance, from the other side of the sea, change thy room and thy chair, nor yet thy curtains, though the latter, I will say, sorely need washing at the present moment,” she added with sublime irrelevance.
The girl sighed. Maman for once did not understand. Nor of a truth did she understand herself. She had tried to explain it all but had signally failed — had only succeeded in suggesting something which of course was supremely silly.
“I’ll tell thee how it is, Rose Marie,” resumed Madame Legros with firm decision, “thy stomach is in a disturbed condition, and a cup of cold camomile tea thou shalt drink tomorrow before rising. I’ll see to the making of it at once — for it must be brewed over-night to be truly efficacious — and come back and give thee thy supper a little later on.”
Madame Legros struggled back to her feet, happy to have found in a prospective cup of camomile tea a happy solution for Rose Marie’s curious mood. She took up the platter again, for the fricassée must be kept hot, and the child must eat some supper a little later on. The good woman’s heart was filled with that cheerful optimism which persistently seeks the good side of every eventuality and nearly always finds it. In this case Madame Legros failed to see that anything but good could come out of the present position. That same wonderful optimism of hers had not been altogether proof against the events of the past years, when she first began to realise that the marriage which she — more so than her husband — had planned in conjunction with Mistress Angélique Kestyon, was destined to prove a bar to her daughter’s happiness.
In those far-off days eighteen years ago, Madame Legros had still fostered in her homely bosom the — since then — aborted seeds of social ambition. Well-connected on her mother’s side, with a good English family, she had wedded the Paris tailor for pecuniary rather than for sentimental reasons, and she had a sufficiency of sound common sense to understand that as a tradesman’s wife she could not in these days of arbitrary class distinction aspire to remain within that same social circle to which her connections and parentage would otherwise have entitled her. But though the seeds of ambition lay dormant in the homely soil of her husband’s back shop, they were not then altogether destroyed.
Mélanie de Boutillier had been well past her youth when she married Armand Legros; when her baby girl was born, and the mother with justifiable pride realised that the child was passing fair, those same seeds once more began to germinate. The visit of the English relative — highborn, well-connected and accompanied by a boy not yet seven years of age, brought them to final perfection. What Mélanie de Boutillier had failed to obtain, Rose Marie Legros should possess in measureless plenty, and little Rupert Kestyon, great nephew of an English milord, should be the one to shower the golden gifts on her.
All these schemes seemed at first so easy of accomplishment. It had been useless afterwards to cry over undue haste; at the time it seemed right, fitting and proper. Times then were troublous in England; Mistress Angélique Kestyon feared the democratic spirit there. It seems that the English were actually fighting against their king, and that the fate of the great noblemen in the country was in consequence somewhat uncertain; but only temporarily, of course, for King Charles Stuart would soon overcome his enemies and duly crush the rebellious traitors who had taken up arms against him. In the meanwhile the children would grow up, and anon when the Court of England had resumed its former splendour, Rupert Kestyon, the dearly-loved relative of the powerful Earl of Stowmaries, would introduce his beautiful bride to the charmed inner circle of English aristocracy.
It all seemed so clear — so simple — as if, of a truth, the match and its glorious consequences had been specially designed by Providence for the glorification and social exaltation of Rose Marie Legros. Surely no one in those days would have thought that any blame could be attached to the parents for hurrying on the marriage ceremony between the two children, whose united ages fell short of a decade.
The catastrophe came afterwards when the tale of deceit and of fraud was gradually unfolded. Then came the requests for money, the long voyage to America, the knowledge that milord Stowmaries not only had no love for these relatives of his, but had finally and irrevocably refused to help them in their distress, unless they took ship for a far distant colony and never troubled him with sight of their faces again.
Good Armand Legros, who adored his daughter, was quite broken-hearted. Madame tried to remain hopeful against these overwhelming odds — always thinking that — though it had certainly pleased God to try the Legros family very severely for the moment — something would inevitably turn up which would be for the best.
The immediate result of that unvarying optimism was that she continued Rose Marie’s education on the same lines as she had originally intended, as if the girl-wife was indeed destined anon to grace the Court of the King of England. The child was taught the English language by one of the many impoverished English gentlemen who had settled in France after the murder of their king. She learned to write and to read, to spell and to dance. She was taught to play on the virginals and to sing whilst playing a thorough-bass on the harpsichord. Nay! her knowledge, so ’twas said, extended even as far as geography and the Copernican system.
Her mother kept her apart from girls of her own age, unless these belonged to one of those few families where learning was esteemed. She was never allowed to forget that some day she would leave her father’s shop and be a great lady in England.
Whilst Madame Legros and the kindly bonhomme Armand gradually drifted in their middle age to the bourgeois manners and customs of their time and station, they jealously fostered in their only child that sense of elegance and refinement which mayhap she had inherited from one of her remote ancestors, or mayhap had received as a special gift from the fairy godmother who presided at her birth.
Madame Legros cooked and scoured, Master Armand made surcoats and breeches, but Rose Marie was never allowed to spoil her hands with scrubbing, or to waste her time presiding over the stewpot. Her father had bought her a pair of gloves; these she always wore when she went out, and she always had stockings and leather shoes on her feet. As the girl grew up, she gradually assimilated to herself more and more this idea that she was to be a great lady. She never doubted her future for a moment. Her father from sheer fondness, her mother from positive conviction, kept the certitude alive within her.
But it became quite impossible to keep from the girl’s growing intelligence all knowledge of the Kestyon’s misdeeds. The worthy tailor who was passing rich kept but a very small house, in which the one living room, situate just above the shop, was the family meeting ground. Rose Marie could not be kept out of the room every time her father and mother talked over the freshly-discovered deceits and frauds practised by their new relations.
We must suppose that the subject thus became such a familiar one with the child-wife from the moment when she first began to comprehend it, that it never acquired any horror or even shame for her. Mistress Angélique Kestyon had grossly deceived papa and maman; they were not so rich or so grand just now as they had represented themselves to be, but it would all come right in the end — maman at least was quite sure of that.
If — as time went on and Rose Marie from a child became a girl — that pleasing optimism somewhat gave way, this was no doubt due to too much book learning. Rose Marie was very fond of books, and books we all know have a tendency to destroy the innocent belief in the goodness of this world. This at least was Papa Legros’ opinion.
Madame Legros spoke less and less on the subject. She hoped.
She hoped resolutely and persistently, whilst the Kestyons from distant Virginia begged repeatedly for money. She went on hoping even whilst urging her husband to cut off further supplies, after ten years of this perpetual sponging. She still hoped whilst no news whatever came from the emigrants and when the rumour reached her that young Rupert Kestyon had died out there.
At this point, however, her optimism took a fresh turn. She hoped that the rumour was true, and that Rose Marie was now free to wed some other equally high-born but more reliable gentleman. She continued to hope despite the difficulty of proving that the young man had really died, and Monseigneur the Archbishop’s refusal to grant permission for a second marriage.
Then when the news filtered through from England as far as the back shop in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie that Rupert Kestyon was not only alive but had — by a wonderful, almost miraculous series of events — inherited the title and estates of his deceased kinsman and was now of a truth by the will of God and the law of his country milord of Stowmaries, and one of the greatest gentleman in the whole of England, Madame Legros’ optimism found its crowning glory in its justification.
That the young milord seemed disinclined to acknowledge the daughter of the Paris tailor as his wife and that he seemed to be taking serious steps to have the marriage annulled, were but trifling matters which never upset Madame Legros’ equanimity.
She was quite sure that the marriage could not be annulled without special dispensation from the Holy Father himself, and equally sure that that dispensation would never be granted. She had perfect faith not only in the sacred indissolubility of the marriage tie, but in the happy future of Rose Marie.
When Monseigneur the Archbishop of Paris granted her Armand a special audience, whereat the tailor had begged permission to lay the family case before His Greatness, Madame Legros never for a moment doubted the happy issue of that interview: and when her man came home and told his satisfactory tale, maman was in no way astonished.
Her optimism had been justified: that was all.
But what did astonish the good soul was the fact that the child — Rose Marie — sat crying in her bed, whereas she should have been singing and laughing all about the place.
Therefore, maman, with commendable forethought, prescribed cold camomile tea as a remedy against what was obviously but a sharp attack of megrims.
Come Care and Pleasure, Hope and Pain
And bring the fated Fairy Prince.
And in the narrow bed built within the wall in the tiny room, wherein a tallow candle placed on a central table threw only very feeble rays, the girl Rose Marie lay dreaming.
She — Rose Marie — the daughter of Papa Legros — as he was uniformly called in the neighbourhood — she was now a great lady, by the will of God and the decree of the Holy Father himself. She would have a glass coach like the ladies whom she had so often seen driving about in Versailles, and sit in it, dressed in the latest fashion and holding a fan in her hand, which would be encased in a lace mitten.
At this point in her dreams Rose Marie sat up in bed, very straight and dignified, with her little hands folded over the cotton coverlet, and she bent her young head to right and to left, like one saluting a number of passers-by. A nod accompanied by an encouraging smile indicated the greeting to a supposed friend, whilst a condescending nod and a haughty stare suggested the presence of an acquaintance of somewhat low degree.
Thus Rose Marie had seen the ladies behave in their coaches in Versailles. She had seen Maria Mancini bow serenely to her admirers, and the Queen Mother bestow the stony stare on her detractors. She had watched, wondered and admired, but never had she tried to imitate until now — now that her smile would be appreciated by many, her frown be of consequence to others.
Up to now it had not mattered. Though her father was reputed to be wealthy, he was only a tailor, who had to bow and scrape and wallow before the great gentlemen of the Court. Aye! and had more than once been soundly thrashed because of the misfit of a pair of Court breeches.
And Rose Marie had oft sighed for greatness, for the gilded coach and a seat at the opera, for silken dresses, flowers, patches and rouge. She was only a child with an acutely developed sense of sympathy for everything that was dainty and refined, everything that smelt sweetly and was soft and tender to the touch.
Thus she went on dreaming her dream in content, never doubting for a moment that happiness lay closely linked with this sudden accession to grandeur. The fact that her lawful lord and husband had shown a desire to break his marriage vows, and to take unto himself some other wife more equal to him in rank and breeding than the humble tailor’s daughter, troubled Rose Marie not at all. With sublime faith in the workings of Providence, she put her husband’s reluctance to acknowledge her down to his ignorance of herself.
He had never seen her since the day of the ceremony, eighteen years ago. She was a baby in arms then, whilst now…
Rose Marie drew in her breath and listened. Maman was evidently not yet coming up. All was still on this upper floor of the house. Rose Marie put her feet to the ground and rose from her bed. She picked up the candle from the table and tripped across the room to where — on the whitewashed wall opposite — there hung a small gilt framed mirror.
Into this she peeped, holding the candle well above her head. Her face wore neither the look of vanity, nor even that of satisfaction: rather was it a look of the closest possible scrutiny. Rose Marie turned her head to right and left again, but not — this time — in order to enact a private comedy, but in order to convince herself in her own mind that her cheeks had indeed that peach-like bloom, which her overfond father had so oft proclaimed, and that her hair was sufficiently brilliant in colour to be called golden, and yet not too vivid to be called “roux.”
We may take it that this scrutiny, which lasted nearly twenty minutes, was of a satisfactory character, for presently, with a happy little sigh, and heaving breast, Rose Marie tripped lightly back to her narrow bed in the wall, and squeezed herself well within the further dark angle, to which the flickering light of the tallow candle had no access.
This she did because she had heard maman’s step on the stairs, and because her own cheeks now were of a flaming red.
For what is wedlock forced but a hell.
I Henry VI V. 5.
“My Lord is sad.”
“My Lord is weary!”
A pause. Mistress Julia Peyton, you understand, was waxing impatient. Can you wonder? She was not accustomed to moodiness on the part of her courtiers; to a certain becoming diffidence mayhap, to tongue-tiedness — if we may be allowed so to call it — on the part of her young adorers fresh from their country homes, fledglings scarce free from the gentle trammels of their mother’s apron strings, to humility in the presence of so much beauty, grace and wit as she was wont to display when taken with the desire to please, to all that yes, yes and a thousand times yes, the adorable Julia was fully accustomed. But to silence on the part of the wittiest gentleman about town, to moodiness akin to ill-humour on the part of the most gallant young rake this side of Westminster — no! no! and a thousand times no! Mistress Julia would have none of it.
Her daintily-shod foot beat a quick measure against the carpets, her fingers delicately tipped with rouge played a devil’s tattoo on the polished top of the tiny marqueterie table beside her, and her small teeth, white and even as those of a kitten, tore impatiently at her under lip.
Still Lord Stowmaries paid no heed to these obvious signs of a coming storm. He lolled in an armchair opposite the imperious beauty, his chin was resting in his hand, his brow was puckered, and oh! most portentous outward indication of troubles within! his cravat looked soiled and crumpled, as if an angry hand had fidgeted its immaculate whiteness away.
At last Mistress Julia found herself quite unable to control her annoyance any longer. Granted that Lord Stowmaries was the richest, most promising “parti” that had ever come her way; that he was young, good-looking, owned half the county of Hertford, and one of the oldest names in England, and that, moreover, he was of sufficiently amiable disposition to be fashioned into a model husband by and by! granted all that, say I! Had not all these advantages, I pray you to admit, caused the fair Julia to hide her ill-humour for close on half an hour, whilst the young man frowned and sighed, gave curt answers to her most charming sallies, and had failed to notice that a filmy handkerchief, lace-edged and delicately perfumed, had been dropped on that veriest exact spot of the carpet which was most conveniently situated for sinking on one knee within a few inches of the most adorable foot in London?
But now the irascible beauty was at the end of her tether. She rose — wrathfully kicking aside that same handkerchief which her surly visitor had failed to notice — and took three quick steps in the direction of the bell-pull.
“And now, my lord,” she said, “I pray you to excuse me.
And she stretched out her hand in a gesture intended to express the full measure of her wrath.
Lord Stowmaries roused himself from his unpleasant torpor.
“To excuse you, fair one?” he murmured in the tone of a man who has just wakened from slumber, and is still unaware of what has been going on around him whilst he slept.
“Ay, my good lord,” she replied with a shrill note of sarcasm very apparent in the voice which so many men had compared to that of a nightingale. “I fain must tear myself away from the delights of your delectable company — though I confess ‘twere passing easy to find more entertaining talk than yours has been this last half-hour.”
“Would you be cruel to me now, Mistress?” he said with a deep and mournful sigh, “now, when—”
“Now, when what?” she retorted still pettishly, though a little mollified by his obvious distress.
She turned back towards him, and presently placed a hand on his shoulder.
“My lord,” she said resolutely, “either you tell me now and at once what ails you this afternoon, or I pray you leave me, for in your present mood, by my faith, your room were more enjoyable than your company.”
He took that pretty hand which still lingered on his shoulder, and pressing it for a few lingering seconds between both his, he finally conveyed its perfumed whiteness to his lips.
“Don’t send me away,” he pleaded pathetically, “I am the most miserable of mortals, and if you closed your doors against me now, you would be sending your most faithful adorer straight to perdition.”
“Tut, man!” she rejoined impatiently, “you talk like a gaby. In the name of Heaven, tell me what ails you, or I vow you’ll send me into my grave with choler.”
“I have been trying to tell you, Mistress, this past halfhour.”
“But Lud help me, I cannot.”
“Then it’s about a woman,” she concluded with firm decision.
He gave no reply. The conclusion was obvious.
The fair Julia frowned. This was threatening to become serious. It was no mere question of moodiness then, of ill-humour anon to be forgiven and dissipated with a smile.
There was a woman at the bottom of my lord Stowmaries’ ill-humour. A woman who had the power to obtrude her personality between his mental vision and the daintiest apparition that had ever turned a man’s brain dizzy with delight. A woman in fact who might prove to be an obstacle to the realisation of Mistress Julia Peyton’s most cherished dreams.
All thoughts of anger, of petulance, of bell-pulls and peremptory conges fled from the beauty’s mind. She sat down again opposite the young man; she rested her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands; she looked serious, sympathetic, interested, anything you like. A sufficiency of moisture rose to her eyes to render them soft and lustrous, appealing and irresistible. Her lips parted and quivered just sufficiently to express deep emotion held courageously in check, whilst from beneath the little lace cap one or two rebellious curls free from powder, golden in colour, and silky in texture, were unaccountably allowed to escape.
Thus equipped for the coming struggle, she repeated her question, not peremptorily this time, but gently and in a voice that trembled slightly with the intensity of sympathy.
“What ails my lord?”
“Nothing short of despair,” he replied, whilst his eyes rested with a kind of mournful abnegation on the enchanting picture so tantalisingly near to him.
“Is it quite hopeless, then?” she asked.
“No. A marriage.”
Outwardly she made no sign. Mistress Julia was not one of those simpering women who faint, or scream, or gasp at moments of mental or moral crises. I will grant you that the colour left her cheek, and that her fingers for one brief instant were tightly clutched — no longer gracefully interlaced — under her chin. But this was in order to suppress emotion, not to make a show of it.
There was only a very momentary pause, the while she now, with deliberate carelessness, brushed a rebellious curl back into its place.
“A marriage, my good lord,” she said lightly, “nay! you must be jesting — or else mayhap I have misunderstood. A marriage to render you moody? Whose marriage could that be?”
“Mine, Mistress — my marriage,” exclaimed Lord Stowmaries, now in tones of truly tragical despair, “curse the fate that brought it about, the parents who willed it, the necessity which forced them to it, and which hath wrecked my life.”
Mistress Julia now made no further attempt to hide her fears. Obviously the young man was not jesting. The tone of true misery in his voice was quite unmistakable. It was the suddenness of the blow which hurt her so. This fall from the pinnacle of her golden dreams. For weeks and months now she had never thought of herself in the future as other than the Countess of Stowmaries, chatelaine of Maries Castle, the leader of society both in London and in Newmarket, by virtue of her husband’s wealth and position, of her own beauty, tact and grace.
She had even with meticulous care so reorganised her mind and memory, that she could now eliminate from them all recollections of the more humble past — the home at Norwich, the yeoman father, kindly but absorbed in the daily struggle for existence, the busy, somewhat vulgar mother, the sordid existence peculiar to impoverished smaller gentry; then the early marriage with Squire Peyton. It had seemed brilliant then, for the Squire, though past his youth, had a fine house, and quite a few serving men — but no position — he never came to London and Mistress Julia’s knowledge of Court and society was akin to that which children possess of fairies or of sprites.
But Squire Peyton it appears had more money than he had owned to in his lifetime. He had been something of a miser apparently, for even his young widow was surprised when at his death — which occurred if you remember some twenty-four months ago — she found herself possessed of quite a pleasing fortune.
This was the beginning of Mistress Julia’s golden dreams, of her longings towards a more brilliant future, which a lucky second marriage could easily now secure for her. The thousand pounds a year which she possessed enabled her to take a small house in Holborn Row, and to lay herself out to cut a passable figure in London society. Not among the Court set, of course, but there were all the young idlers about town, glad enough to be presented to a young and attractive widow, endowed with some wealth of her own, and an inordinate desire to please.
The first few idlers soon attracted others, and gradually the pretty widow’s circle of acquaintances widened. If that circle was chiefly composed of men, who shall blame the pretty widow?
It was a husband she wanted, and not female companionship. Lord Swannes, if you remember, paid her his court, also Sir Jeremiah Harfleet, and it was well known that my lord of Craye — like the true poet that he was — was consumed with love of her. But as soon as Mistress Julia realised that richly-feathered birds were only too willing to fly into her snares, she aimed for higher game. A golden eagle was what she wanted to bring down.
And was not the young Earl of Stowmaries the veritable prince of golden eagles?
He came and saw and she conquered in a trice. Her beauty, which was unquestionable, and an inexhaustible fund of verve and high-spirited chatter which easily passed for wit were attractive to most men, and Lord Stowmaries, somewhat blasé already by the more simpering advances of the Court damsels, found a certain freshness in this young widow who had not yet shaken off the breezy vulgarity of her East Anglian home, and whose artless conversation, wholly innocent of elegance, was more amusing than the stilted “Ohs!” and “Luds!” of the high-born ladies of his own rank.
The golden eagle seemed overwilling to allow the matrimonial snare set by the fair Julia to close in around him: she was already over-sure of him, and though she did not frequent the assemblies and salons where congregated his lordship’s many friends, she was fully aware that her name was being constantly coupled with that of the Earl of Stowmaries.
But now she saw that she had missed her aim, that the glorious bird no longer flew within her reach, but was a prisoner in some one else’s cage, fettered beyond her powers of liberation.
But still Mistress Julia with persistence worthy a better cause refused to give up all hope.
“Tell-me all about it, my lord,” she said as quietly as she could. “It had been better had you spoken before.”
“I have been a fool, Mistress,” he replied dully, “yet more sinned against than sinning.”
“You’ll not tell me that you are actually married?” she insisted.
“And did not tell me so,” she retorted hotly, “but came here, courting me, speaking of love to me — of marriage — God help you! when the very word was a sacrilege since you were not free — Oh! the perfidy of it all! — and you speak of being more sinned against than sinning. ’Tis the pillory you deserve, my lord, for thus shaming a woman first and then breaking her heart.”
She was quite sincere in her vehemence, for self-control had now quite deserted her, and the wrong and humiliation which she had been made to endure, rose up before her like cruel monsters that mocked and jeered at her annihilated hopes and her vanished dreams. Her voice rose in a crescendo of shrill tones, only to sink again under the strength of choking sobs. Despair, shame and bitter reproach rang through every word which she uttered.
“As you rightly say, Mistress,” murmured the young man, “God help me!”
“But the details, man — the details,” she rejoined impatiently, “cannot you see that I am consumed with anxiety — the woman? — who is she?”
“Her name is Rose Marie,” he replied in the same dull, even tones, like a schoolboy reciting a lesson which he hath learned, but does not understand, “she is the daughter of a certain Monsieur Legros, who is tailor to His Majesty the King of France.”
“A tailor!” she gasped, incredulous now, hopeful once more that the young man was mayhap suffering from megrims and had seen unpleasant visions, which had no life or reality in them.
“A tailor’s daughter?” she repeated. “Impossible!”
“Only too true,” he rejoined. “I had no choice in the matter.”
“Tush!” she retorted scornfully, “and you a man!”
“Nay! I was not a man then.”
“I was in my seventh year!” he exclaimed pathetically. There was a slight pause, during which the swiftly-risen hope a few moments ago once more died away. Then she said drily:
“And she? — this — this Rose or Mary — daughter of a tailor — how old was she when you married her?”
“In her second year, I think,” he replied meekly. “I just remember quite vaguely that after the ceremony she was carried screaming and kicking out of the church. That was the last I saw of my wife from that day to this—”
“My great-uncle, the late Lord Stowmaries, shipped my father, mother and myself off to Virginia soon after that. My father had been something of a wastrel all his life and a thorn in the flesh of the old miser. The second time that he was locked up in a debtor’s prison, Lord Stowmaries paid up for him on the condition that he went off to Virginia at once with my mother and myself, and never showed his face in England again.”
“Hm! I remember hearing something of this when you, my lord, came into your title. But these — these — tailor people — who were they?”
“Madame Legros was a distant connection of my mother’s who, I suppose, married the tailor for the same reason that I — an unfortunate lad without a will of my own — was made to marry the tailor’s daughter.”
“She is rich — of course?”
“Legros, the tailor, owns millions, I believe, and Rose Marie is his only child. It was the first time that my poor father, Captain Kestyon, found himself actually in prison and unable to pay his debts. The Earl of Stowmaries — a wicked old miser, if ever there was one — refused to come to his rescue. My mother was practically penniless then; she had no one to whom she could turn for succour except the cousin over in Paris, who had always been kind to her, who was passing rich, burning with social ambition, and glad enough to have the high-born English lady beneath her bourgeois roof.”
“And that same burning social ambition caused the worthy tailor to consent to a marriage between his baby daughter and the scion of one of the grandest families in England,” commented Mistress Julia calmly. “It were all so simple — if only you had had the manhood to tell me all this ere now.”
“I thought that miserable marriage forever forgotten.”
“Pshaw!” she retorted, “was it likely?”
“I had heard nothing of the Legros for many years,” he said dejectedly. “My father had died out in the Colony: my mother and I continued to live there on a meagre pittance which that miserly old reprobate — my great-uncle — grudgingly bestowed upon us. This was scarce sufficient for our wants, let alone for enabling us to save enough money to pay our passage home. At first my mother was in the habit of asking for and obtaining help from the Legros! — you understand? she never would have consented to the connection,” added the young man with naïve cynicism, “had she not intended to derive profit therefrom, so whenever an English or a French ship touched the coast my poor mother would contrive to send a pathetic letter to be delivered in Paris, at the house of the king’s tailor. But after a while answers to these missives became more and more rare, soon they ceased altogether, and it is now eight years since the last remittance came—”
“The worthy tailor and his wife were getting tired of the aristocratic connection,” commented Mistress Julia drily, “no doubt they too had intended to derive profit therefrom and none came.”
“Was I not right, Mistress, in thinking that ill-considered marriage forgotten?” quoth Lord Stowmaries with more vehemence than he had displayed in the actual recital of the sordid tale, “was I not justified in thinking that the Legros had by now bitterly regretted the union of their only child to the penniless son of a spendthrift father? Tell me,” he reiterated hotly, “was I not justified? I thought that they had forgotten — that they had regretted — that Rose Marie had found a husband more fitted to her lowly station and to her upbringing — and that her parents would only be too glad to think that I too had forgotten — or that I was dead.”
There was a slight pause. Mistress Julia’s white brow was puckered into a deep frown of thought.
“Well, my lord,” she said at last, “ye’ve told me the past — and though the history be not pretty, it is past and done with, and I take it that your concern now is rather with the present.”
“Nay! sigh me not such doleful sighs, man!” she exclaimed with angry impatience, “but in the name of all the saints get on with your tale. What has happened? The Legros have found out that little Rupert Kestyon hath now become Earl of Stowmaries and one of the richest peers in the kingdom — that’s it — is it not?”
“Briefly, that is it, Mistress. They demand that their daughter be instated in her position and the full dignities and rights to which her marriage entitle her.”
“Failing which?” she asked curtly.
“Oh! scandal! disgrace! they will apply to the Holy Father — the orders would then come direct from Rome — I could not disobey under pain of excommunication—”
“The Kestyons have been Catholics for five hundred years,” said the young man simply, whilst a touch of dignity — the first since he began to relate his miserable tale — now crept into his attitude. “We do not call the dictates of the Holy Father in question, nor do we name them tyranny. They are irrevocable in matters such as these—”
“Surely — a sum of money—” she hazarded.
“The Legros have more of that commodity than I have. But it is not a question of money. Believe me, fair Mistress,” he said in tones which once more revealed the sorrow of his heart, “I have thought on the matter in all its bearings — I have even broached the subject to the Duke of York,” he added after an imperceptible moment of hesitation.
“Ah? and what said His Highness?” asked Mistress Julia with that quick inward catching of her breath which the mentioning of exalted personages was ever wont to call forth in her.
“Oh! His Highness only spoke of the sanctity of the marriage tie—”
“’Twas not likely he would talk otherwise. ’Tis said that his bigotry grows daily upon him — and that he only awaits a favourable moment to embrace openly the Catholic Faith—”
“His Majesty was of the same opinion, too.”
“Ah? You spoke to His Majesty?”
“Was it not my duty?”
“Mayhap — mayhap — and what did His Majesty say?”