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TRUE to her word, Madame Bergeret quitted the conjugal roof and betook herself to the house of her mother, the widow Pouilly.As the time for her departure drew near, she had half a mind not to go, and with a little coaxing would have consented to forget the past and resume the old life with her husband, at the same time vaguely despising M. Bergeret as the injured party.
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The Amethyst Ring
TRUE to her word, Madame Bergeret quitted the conjugal roof and betook herself to the house of her mother, the widow Pouilly.
As the time for her departure drew near, she had half a mind not to go, and with a little coaxing would have consented to forget the past and resume the old life with her husband, at the same time vaguely despising M. Bergeret as the injured party.
She was quite ready to forgive and forget, but the unbending esteem in which she was held by the circle in which she moved did not allow of such a course. Madame Dellion had made it clear to her that any such weakness on her part would be judged unfavourably; all the drawing-rooms in the place were unanimous upon that score. There was but one opinion among the tradespeople: Madame Bergeret must return to her mother. In this way did they uphold the proprieties and, at the same time, rid themselves of a thoughtless, common, compromising person, whose vulgarity was apparent even to the vulgar, and who was a burden on everybody about her. They made her believe there was something heroic in her conduct.
“I have the greatest admiration for you, my child,” said old Madame Dutilleul from the depths of her easy chair, she who had survived four husbands, and was a truly terrible woman. People suspected her of everything, except of ever having loved, and in her old age she was honoured and respected by all.
Madame Bergeret was delighted at having inspired sympathy in Madame Dellion and admiration in Madame Dutilleul, and still she could not finally make up her mind to go, for she was of a homely disposition and accustomed to regular habits and quite content to live on in idleness and deceit. Having grasped this fact, M. Bergeret redoubled his efforts to ensure his deliverance. He stoutly upheld Marie, the servant, who kept every one in the house in a state of wretchedness and trepidation, was suspected of harbouring thieves and cut-throats in her kitchen, and only brought herself into prominence by the catastrophes she caused.
Four days before the time appointed for Madame Bergeret’s departure, this girl, who was drunk as usual, upset a lighted lamp in her mistress’s room and set fire to the blue chintz bed-curtains. Madame Bergeret was spending the day with her friend, Madame Lacarelle. She returned and, amid the dreadful stillness of the house, beheld on entering her room the evidences of the disaster. She called and called in vain for her stony-hearted husband and her besotted maid, then stood gazing at the smoke-blackened ceiling and the dismal ravages of the fire. This commonplace accident assumed in her eyes a mystic significance that frightened her. But presently as the candle began to flicker she lay down, tired out and very cold, upon her bed under the skeleton of the charred canopy whose black shreds fluttered like the wings of a bat. The next morning, on waking, she wept for her blue curtains, the souvenir and symbol of her youth; bare-footed, with dishevelled hair, smothered with blacks and clad only in her nightdress, she ran desperately about the rooms, crying and moaning. M. Bergeret took no notice of her; for him she had ceased to exist.
That evening, with the help of the girl Marie, she drew her bed into the middle of the dreary room. But now she realized that this room could never again be a resting-place for her, and that she must leave the home where for fifteen years she had fulfilled the duties of daily life.
Moreover, the ingenious Bergeret, having taken rooms for his daughter Pauline and himself in a little house in the Place Saint-Exupère, was busy moving out and moving in.
He went backwards and forwards ceaselessly between the two houses, keeping close to the walls, and trotting along with the agility of a mouse suddenly unearthed in a heap of debris. His heart was glad within him, but he concealed his joy, for he was a prudent man.
Having been told that, at an early date, she must hand over the keys of the house to the landlord, Madame Bergeret in like manner set about despatching her furniture to her mother, who lived in a maisonnette on the ramparts of a little northern town. She made bundles of clothes and of linen, pushed the furniture about, gave orders to the men, sneezed in the dusty atmosphere, and wrote out labels addressed to “Madame Veuve Pouilly.”
From her labours Madame Bergeret derived moral assistance, for it is good for mankind to work. It takes a man’s mind off his own life and turns him away from dreadful self-examination; it keeps him from that which makes solitude unbearable, the contemplation of that other being, his real self. It is the sovereign remedy for moral and æsthetic obsessions. Work is also excellent, in that it panders to our vanity, hides from us our impotence, and flatters us with the hope of something good to come. We imagine that it enables us to steal a march on Fate. Failing to realize the necessary relation between individual endeavour and the mechanism of the universe, we fondly imagine that our efforts are directed to our own advantage against the rest of the machine. Work gives us illusory determination, strength and independence, and makes us as gods in our own eyes. We appear to ourselves as so many heroes, genii, demons, demiurges, gods—yes, as God Himself. And, in fact, man has always conceived of God as a worker. Thus it was that the removal restored Madame Bergeret’s natural gaiety and the joyous energy of her physical strength. She sang songs as she tied up parcels; the rapid flow of blood in her veins made her content, and she looked forward to a happy future.
She painted in glowing colours her life in the little Flemish town where she would live with her mother and her two younger daughters. There she hoped to grow young again, to be brilliant and admired, to have attention offered her, and to find sympathy. Who could say whether, once the decree nisi was granted in her favour, a second and wealthy marriage were not awaiting her in her native town? Was it not quite possible that she might marry a good-tempered, sensible man, a country gentleman, an agriculturist or a Government official, somebody quite different from M. Bergeret?
The packing-up also afforded her peculiar satisfaction, for from it she derived some solid advantages in the way of gain. Not satisfied with the appropriation of what she had brought as her marriage portion, and a large share of the common property, she heaped into her trunks things which she ought in ordinary fairness to have left to others. In this way she packed among her underclothes a silver cup which had belonged to M. Bergeret’s maternal grandmother. Again, she added to her own jewels which, be it said, were of no great value, the watch and chain of M. Bergeret’s father, a professor at the University, who, having refused in 1852 to swear fidelity to the Empire, had died in 1873, poor and forgotten.
Madame Bergeret interrupted her packing only to go and pay her farewell calls, visits both sad and triumphant. Public opinion was in her favour. Men’s judgments are diverse, and there is no place in the world where there is undivided and unanimous opinion on any single subject. Tradidit mundum disputationibus eorum. Madame Bergeret herself was the subject of polite discussion and of secret dissent. The greater number of the ladies of her acquaintance considered her irreproachable, otherwise they would not have received her at their houses. There were a few, however, who suspected that her adventure with M. Roux had not been quite blameless; some of them even went so far as to say so. One blamed her, another excused her, a third approved of her, casting all the blame upon M. Bergeret, as being a spiteful man.
That point, too, was open to doubt. Some people declared M. Bergeret to be a nice, quiet man, the only thing to dislike in him being his too subtle mind, which was at variance with public opinion.
M. de Terremondre said that M. Bergeret was a very nice sort of man; to which Madame Dellion replied that if he were really a good man he would have stood by his wife, however wicked she was.
“There would be some merit in that,” she said. “There is nothing noble in putting-up with a charming woman.”
Another opinion of Madame Dellion’s was: “M. Bergeret is doing his utmost to keep his wife, but she is leaving him, and quite right too! It serves M. Bergeret right.”
Thus did Madame Dellion express opinions which were inconsistent, for human thought has ever depended not upon force of reason but on violence of feeling.
Although the world is known to be uncertain in its judgment, Madame Bergeret would have gone from the town in possession of a good reputation, if on the very eve of her departure, when paying her farewell visit to Madame Lacarelle, she had not met M. Lacarelle alone in the drawing-room.
M. Gustave Lacarelle, chief clerk at the préfecture, had a long, thick, fair moustache, which, while the chief characteristic of his countenance, was also destined to determine his character. In his student days at the Law Schools, his comrades had discovered in him a resemblance to the ancient Gauls, as depicted in the sculpture and paintings of the later romanticists. Other more careful observers, remarking that the long strands of hair were situated under a snub nose and placid eyes, gave Lacarelle the name of “The Seal.” The latter, however, did not prevail against that of “The Gaul.” Lacarelle became “The Gaul” to his companions, who consequently made up their minds that he ought to be a great drinker, a great fighter, and a devil with the women, in order that he might conform in reality to the Frenchman of immemorial tradition. At the Corps dinners he was forced to drink far more than he wanted, and he could never go into a brasserie with his friends without being pushed up against some tray-laden waitress. When he married and returned to his native town, and, by what was a great stroke of fortune in those days, obtained a post in the Central Administration of the department from which he hailed, Gustave Lacarelle continued to be called “The Gaul” by the most important of the magistrates, lawyers, and Government officials who frequented his house. The ignorant mob, however, did not bestow this name upon him until 1895, in which year a statue to Eporedorix was erected and unveiled on the Pont National.
Twenty-two years previously, under the presidency of M. Thiers, it had been decided that subscriptions should be invited for the erection of a statue to the Gaulish chief Eporedorix, who, in the year 52 B.C., led the river tribes against Cæsar, and imperilled the small Roman garrison by cutting down the wooden bridge built by them to ensure communication with the rest of the Army. The archæologists of the little county town firmly believed that this feat of arms had been accomplished in their town, founding their belief on a passage in the Commentaries which all the learned societies of the district quoted as a proof of the fact that the wooden bridge cut down by Eporedorix was situated in their particular town. There is a great deal of uncertainty with regard to Cæsar’s geography, and local patriotism is both fierce and jealous. The chief town of the department, three sous-préfectures, and four smaller towns quarrelled for the glory of having slaughtered the Romans by the hand of Eporedorix.
Competent authority decided the question in favour of the capital town of the department. It was an unfortified town, which much to its sorrow and anger had been forced in 1870 after one hour’s bombardment to allow the enemy to enter its walls, walls which in the time of Louis XI had been crumbling to pieces, and now lay concealed beneath the ivy that had overgrown them.
The town had undergone the hardships and privations of military occupation. It had suffered and atoned. The project of erecting a monument to the memory of the Gaulish chief was received with enthusiasm by the townspeople, who were experiencing the humiliation of defeat, and were all the more grateful to their long-dead compatriot for providing them with something of which they could be proud. Resuscitated after fifteen hundred years of oblivion, Eporedorix united all the citizens in a bond of filial devotion. The name of the hero roused no distrust in any of the different political parties which were then dividing France. Opportunists, Radicals, Constitutionalists, Royalists, Orleanists, Bonapartists, they all gave to the scheme; half the cost was subscribed within the year, and deputies of the department obtained from the Government what was wanting to make up the required sum.
The order for the statue of Eporedorix was given to Mathieu Michel, David d’Angers’ youngest pupil, he whom the Master had called his Benjamin. Mathieu Michel, who was then in his fiftieth year, at once set to work, and attacked the clay with a generous, if somewhat cramped, hand, for the republican sculptor had done but little work during the Empire. In less than two years, however, he finished the figure, a plaster model of which was exhibited in the Salon of 1873, among many other Gaulish chiefs gathered together among the palms and begonias under the huge glass dome. Owing to the endless formalities insisted upon by the authorities, the statue was not finally completed in marble for another five years. After this, so many administrative difficulties, so many disputes arose, between the town and the Government, that it looked as though the statue of Eporedorix would never be erected upon the Pont National.
In 1895, however, the work was accomplished, and the statue, arriving from Paris, was received by the préfet, who solemnly handed it over to the mayor of the town. Mathieu Michel accompanied his work. He was then over seventy, and the whole town turned out to look at the old man with his lion-like head and long, flowing, white hair.
The inauguration took place on the 7th of June, when M. Dupont was Minister of Public Instruction, M. Worms-Clavelin préfet of the department, and M. Trumelle mayor of the town. Doubtless the enthusiasm was not what it would have been on the morrow of the invasion, when indignation was at its height, but at any rate everybody was satisfied. The speeches and also the uniforms of the officers met with applause, and when the green veil which hid Eporedorix from view was withdrawn the whole town cried as with one voice, “Lacarelle! It is Lacarelle! It is the image of Lacarelle!”
This, to tell the truth, was by no means correct. Mathieu Michel, the pupil and emulator of David d’Angers, he whom the venerable master called the child of his old age, the republican sculptor and patriot, insurgent in ’48, volunteer in ’70, had not portrayed M. Gustave Lacarelle in this marble hero. No, indeed! This chief, with his shy and gentle look, clasping his lance, and seeming, under his wide-winged helmet, to be meditating upon the poetry of Chateaubriand and the historic philosophy of Henri Martin, this warrior, steeped in romantic melancholy, was not, in spite of what the people cried, the true portrait of M. Lacarelle.
The préfet’s secretary had big, prominent eyes, a short, snub nose, flabby cheeks, and a double chin. Mathieu Michel’s Eporedorix gazed with deep-set orbs into the distance. His nose was Grecian, and the contour of his face pure and classical. But, like M. Lacarelle, he had a tremendous moustache, the long, curving branches of which were visible from every point of view.
Struck by this resemblance, the crowd unanimously bestowed upon M. Lacarelle the glorious name of Eporedorix, and from that time the secretary of the préfetfound himself compelled to personate in public the popular idea of the Gaul, and to conform to it by word and deed under all circumstances. Lacarelle was fairly successful, for he had had plenty of practice since his student days, and all that was required of him was to be hail-fellow-well-met with everybody, keen on the Army, and a teller of broad stories when necessary. He was considered to be an adept at kissing women, and so he became a great embracer. He kissed them all and he kissed them always. It did not matter who they were: women, young girls, and little girls, pretty ones and plain, old and young, he embraced them out of pure Gaulishness, and with no evil intentions, for he was a moral man.
And that is why, coming unexpectedly upon Madame Bergeret waiting in the drawing-room for his wife, he immediately embraced her. Madame Bergeret was not ignorant of M. Lacarelle’s little habit, but her vanity, which was great, confounded her judgment, which was scanty. She thought he kissed her because he loved her, and straightway fell into so great an emotion that her bosom heaved stormily, her legs gave way beneath her, and she sank panting into the arms of M. Lacarelle. The latter was both surprised and embarrassed, but his amour-propre was flattered. He placed Madame Bergeret as comfortably as he could upon the couch, and, bending over her, said in a voice filled with sympathy:
“Poor lady! So charming and so unhappy! And so you are leaving us? You are going to-morrow?”
And he imprinted upon her brow a chaste kiss. But Madame Bergeret, whose nerves were all unstrung, burst into a fit of sobs and tears; then slowly, solemnly, and sorrowfully she returned his kiss at the very moment that Madame Lacarelle entered the room.
The next day the whole town sat in judgment upon Madame Bergeret, who had remained among them just one day too long.
THAT day the Duc de Brécé was entertaining General Cartier de Chalmot, Abbé Guitrel, and Lerond, the ex-deputy, at Brécé. They had visited the stables, the kennels, the pheasantry, and had been talking, all the time, about the Affair.
As the twilight fell, they commenced to stroll slowly along the great avenue of the park. Before them the château rose up, in the dapple grey sky, with its heavy façade laden with pediments and crowned with the high-pitched roofs of the Empire period.
“I am convinced,” said M. de Brécé, “as I said before, that the fuss made over this affair is, and can only be, some abominable plot instigated by the enemies of France.”
“And of religion,” gently added Abbé Guitrel. “It is impossible to be a good Frenchman without being a good Christian. And it is clear that the scandal was started in the first place by freethinkers and freemasons, by Protestants.”
“And Jews,” went on M. de Brécé, “Jews and Germans. What unheard-of audacity to question the decision of a court martial! For, when all is said and done, it is quite impossible for seven French officers to have made a mistake.”
“No, of course, that is not to be thought of,” said the Abbé Guitrel.
“Generally speaking,” put in M. Lerond, “a miscarriage of justice is a most improbable thing. I would even go so far as to say an impossible thing, inasmuch as the law protects the accused in so many ways. I am speaking of civil law, and I say the same of martial law. As far as courts martial are concerned, even supposing the prisoner’s interest to be less thoroughly safeguarded owing to the comparatively summary form of procedure, he finds all necessary security in the character of his judges. To my mind it is an insult to the Army, to doubt the legality of a verdict delivered by a court martial.”
“You are quite correct,” replied the Duke. “Besides, can anyone really believe seven French officers to be mistaken? Is such a thing conceivable, General?”
“Hardly,” replied General Cartier de Chalmot. “It would take a great deal to make me believe it.”
“A syndicate of treachery!” cried M. de Brécé. “The thing is unheard of!”
Conversation flagged and fell. The Duke and the General had just caught sight of some pheasants in a clearing, and, smitten simultaneously with the burning and instinctive desire to kill, mentally recorded a regret at having no guns with them.
“You have the finest coverts in the district,” said the General to the Duc de Brécé.
The Duke was deep in thought.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” he remarked, “the Jews will never be any good to France.”
The Duc de Brécé, eldest son of the late Duke—who had cut a dash among the light-horse at the Assemblée de Versailles—had entered public life after the death of the Comte de Chambord. He had never known the days of hope, the hours of ardent struggle, of monarchical enterprises as exciting as a conspiracy and as impassioned as an act of faith. He had never seen the tapestried bed offered to the Prince by noble ladies, nor the banners, the flags and the white horses which were to bring the King to his own again. By right of birth as a Brécé he took his place as deputy at the Palais-Bourbon, nourishing a secret enmity against the Comte de Paris, and a hidden wish never to see the restoration, if it were to be in favour of the younger branch of the Royal Family. With this one exception he was a loyal and faithful Royalist. He was drawn into intrigues which he did not understand, made a hopeless muddle of his votes, spent his money freely in Paris, and when the elections took place found himself defeated at Brécé by Dr. Cotard.
From that day onward he devoted his time to farming, to his family and to religion. All that remained of his hereditary domain, which in 1789 was composed of one hundred and twelve parishes, comprising one hundred and seventy “Hommages,” four “Terres titrés,” and eighteen manors, was about two thousand acres of land and forest around the historic castle of Brécé. In his department the Brécé coverts invested him with a lustre that he had never enjoyed at the Palais-Bourbon. The forests of Brécé and La Guerche, in which Francis I had hunted, were also celebrated in the ecclesiastical history of the district, for in these woods was situated the time-honoured chapel of Notre-Dame-des-Belles-Feuilles.
“Now mark what I tell you,” repeated the Duc de Brécé, “the Jews will bring misfortune upon France. Why don’t we get rid of them? Nothing would be easier!”
“It would be a great thing,” replied the magistrate, “but not so easy as you imagine, M. le Duc. In the first place, if you wish in any way to affect the position of the Jews in this country, you must make new laws on naturalization. Now it is always difficult to make a law which will satisfactorily fulfil the intentions of the legislator, and laws such as these would affect the whole of our legal system, and would, moreover, be extremely difficult to draft. Then, unfortunately, we could never be certain of finding a Government ready to propose or support them, nor a Parliament to carry them. The Senate is no good. As history unrolls itself before our eyes we make the discovery that the eighteenth century is one huge error of the human understanding, and that social as well as religious truths are to be found in their full completeness only in the traditions of the Middle Ages. By and by France will find it necessary—as Russia has done with regard to the Jews—to revert to the procedure adopted in those feudal times which offer the best example of the typical Christian state.”
“Naturally,” said the Duke, “Christian France should belong to Frenchmen and Christians, not to Jews and Protestants.”
“Bravo!” cried the General.
“There was a younger son in our family,” went on the Duke, “called Nez-d’Argent—I don’t know why—who fought in the provinces during the reign of Charles IX. On that tree whose leafless top you see over there, he hanged six hundred and thirty-six Huguenots. Well, I must confess I am proud of being a descendant of Nez-d’Argent. I have inherited his hatred of heretics, and I hate Jews in the same way that he hated Protestants.”
“Such sentiments are most praiseworthy, M. le Duc,” remarked the Abbé, “most laudable, and worthy of the great name you bear. But, if you will allow me, I will make a comment on just one point. In the Middle Ages the Jews were not considered heretics, and, properly speaking, they are not heretics. The heretic is a man who, having been baptized, and instructed in the doctrines of the faith, misrepresents or denies them. Such are, or rather were, the Arians, the Albigenses, the Novatians, the Montanists, the Priscillianists, the Waldenses, the Anabaptists, and the Calvinists, so cleverly disposed of by your illustrious ancestor, Nez-d’Argent; not to mention many other sects who upheld doctrines contrary to the beliefs of the Church. The number of them is very great, for variety is a characteristic of error. There is no stopping on the downward path of heresy; and schism reproduces and multiplies itself ad infinitum. All that one finds opposing the true Church is the dust and ashes of churches. The other day, when reading Bossuet, I came across an admirable definition of a heretic. ‘A heretic,’ says Bossuet, ‘is one who holds an opinion of his own; one who acts according to his own ideas and his own feelings.’ Now the Jew, who has never received baptism nor been instructed in the truth, cannot rightly be called a heretic.
“And again we see that the Inquisition never chastised a Jew as such, and if a Jew was handed over to earthly justice it was because he was a blasphemer, a profane person, or a corrupter of the faithful. A better name for the Jew would be infidel, because that is the name we give to those who, being unbaptized, do not believe in the truths of the Christian religion. Again, we must not, strictly speaking, look upon the Jew as an infidel, in the same way as we should a Mohammedan or an idolater. The Jews occupy a unique and singular position in the economy of the eternal verities. Theology bestows upon them a designation conformable to their rôle in history. They were called ‘witnesses’ in the Middle Ages, and we must admire the force and precision of such a term. The reason why God allows them to live is that they may serve as witnesses and sureties for the words and deeds upon which our religion is founded. We must not go so far as to say that God purposely makes the Jews obstinate and blind to serve as living proofs of Christianity; but He utilizes their free and voluntary stubbornness to confirm us in our belief. It is for that reason that He allows them a place among the nations.”
“But in the meanwhile,” put in the Duke, “they rob us of our money and destroy our national energy.”
“And they insult the Army,” said General Cartier de Chalmot. “Or rather it is insulted by the wretches in their pay.”
“And that is a crime,” remarked the Abbé gently. “The salvation of France depends upon the alliance of the Church and the Army.”
“Well, then, M. l’Abbé, why do you defend the Jews?” demanded the Duc de Brécé.
“Far from defending them,” replied the Abbé Guitrel, “I condemn their unpardonable sin, which is to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. On this point their obstinacy is invincible. Their own belief is rational enough, but they do not believe all that they should, and that is why they have drawn so heavy a blame upon themselves. This blame rests upon the Jews as a nation, and not as individuals, and cannot touch any who have been converted to Christianity.”
“For my part,” said the Duke, “converted Jews are just as odious to me, more odious even, than other Jews. It is the race I dislike.”
“Allow me to say I do not believe you, M. le Duc,” said the Abbé. “For that would be to sin against charity and the teaching of the Church. I am sure that, like myself, you are grateful to a certain extent to some unconverted Jews for their liberal donations towards our charities. It is impossible to deny, for instance, that families like the R—— and the F—— have, in this respect, shown an example which might well be followed by all Christian families. I will go so far as to say that Madame Worms-Clavelin, although not openly converted to Catholicism, has on several occasions given proof of truly divine inspiration. It is to the préfet’s wife that we owe the tolerance with which in the midst of general persecution our Church schools are regarded in this department. As for Madame de Bonmont, who is a Jewess by birth, she is a true Christian indeed, and takes pattern to a certain extent by those holy widows who in centuries past gave a part of their riches to the churches and the poor.”
“The Bonmonts’ real name is Gutenberg,” put in M. Lerond. “They are of German extraction. The grandfather amassed his riches by the manufacture of the two poisons, absinth and vermuth, and was imprisoned no less than three times for infringement and adulteration. The father, who was a manufacturer and a financier, made a scandalous fortune through speculation and monopoly. Subsequently his widow presented a golden ciborium to Monseigneur Charlot. That sort of people always makes me think of the two attorneys who, after listening to a sermon by good Father Maillard, said to each other at the church door, ‘Well, neighbour, have we got to disgorge?’”
“It is an extraordinary thing,” said M. Lerond, “that the Semitic question has never arisen in England.”
“That is because the English are not made the same as we are,” said the Duke. “Their blood is not so hot as ours.”
“True,” said M. Lerond. “I fully appreciate that remark; but it may arise from the fact that the English engage all their capital in trade, while our hard-working population save theirs for speculation; in other words, for the Jews. The whole trouble arises from having to submit to the laws and customs of the Revolution. Salvation lies in a speedy return to the old regime.”
“That’s true,” said the Duc de Brécé thoughtfully.
They walked along, chatting as they went. Suddenly a char-à-banc passed them, bowling along the road thrown open to the inhabitants of the town by the late Duke. Filled with laughing, noisy people, it went swiftly past them; amongst the countrywomen with their flower-bedecked hats, and the farmers in blouses, sat a jovial red-bearded fellow smoking a pipe. He was pretending to aim at imaginary pheasants with his cane as they passed by. It was Dr. Cotard, member for the Brécé district, member for the ancient seigniory of Brécé.
“That, at any rate, is a strange sight,” said M. Lerond, brushing off the dust raised by the char-à-banc, “to see Cotard, the medical officer of health, representing this district, upon which your ancestors, M. le Duc, showered benefits and glories for eight hundred years. Only yesterday I was rereading in M. de Terremondre’s book the letter which your great-great-grandfather, the Duc de Brécé, wrote in 1787 to his steward, and which proves how kind-hearted he was. You remember the letter, do you not?”
The Duke replied that he remembered the letter in question, but could not be sure of the precise terms employed.
M. Lerond immediately began to recite by heart the principal phrases of this touching letter. “I have learned,” wrote the Good Duke, “that the inhabitants of Brécé are forbidden to gather strawberries in the woods. People are evidently doing their best to make me disliked, and that would be a terrible grief to me.”
“I have also found,” continued M. Lerond, “some interesting details on the life of the good Duc de Brécé in M. de Terremondre’s summary. The Duke spent the worst days of the Revolution here on his estate without being in any way molested, for his good deeds gained him the love and respect of his old retainers. In exchange for the titles of which by a decree of the National Assembly he was deprived he received that of Commander of the National Guard of Brécé. M. de Terremondre goes on to tell us that on the 20th of September, 1792, the municipality of Brécé assembled in the courtyard of the castle, and there planted a tree to Liberty, to which was suspended this inscription, ‘Hommage à la vertu!’”
“M. de Terremondre,” returned the Duke, “drew his information from the archives of my family. I myself asked him to go into them, for, unfortunately, I have never had the time to do so. Duke Louis de Brécé, of whom you were speaking, surnamed ‘the Good Duke,’ died of grief in 1794. He was gifted with a kindness of disposition which even the Revolutionists themselves delighted to honour. Every one recognizes the fact that he distinguished himself by his loyalty to his King; that he was a good master, a good father, and a good husband. You must take no notice of the so-called revelations of a man called Mazure, who is keeper of the departmental archives. According to him the ‘Good Duke’s’ benevolence was confined to his prettiest vassals, on whom he liked to exercise his ‘droit de jambage.’ As far as that goes, this particular right to which I allude is of a very problematical nature, and I have never been able to discover a trace of it among the Brécé archives, which, by the way, have been in part destroyed.”
“This right,” said M. Lerond, “if it ever did exist at all, was nothing more nor less than a payment in meat or wine which serfs were called upon to bring to their lord before contracting marriage. If I remember rightly, there were certain localities where this tax existed, and was paid in ready money to the value of three halfpence.”
“With regard to that,” went on the Duke, “I consider my ancestor entirely exonerated from the accusations brought against him by this M. Mazure, who, I am told, is a dangerous man. Unfortunately——” The Duke heaved a slight sigh, and continued in a lower and mysterious voice: “Unfortunately, the Good Duke was in the habit of reading pernicious books. Whole editions of Voltaire and Rousseau, bound in morocco and stamped with the Brécé coat of arms, have been discovered in the castle library. He fell, to a certain extent, under the detestable influence of the philosophical thought that was rampant among all classes of people towards the end of the eighteenth century, even among those in the highest society. He was possessed of a mania for writing, and was the author of certain Memoirs, the manuscript of which is still in my possession. Both the Duchess and M. de Terremondre have glanced through it. It is surprising to find there traces of the Voltairian spirit, and the Duke now and then shows his partiality for the Encyclopædists. He used, in fact, to correspond with Diderot. That is why I have thought it wise to withhold my consent to the publication of these Memoirs, in spite of the request of some of the savants of the district, and of M. de Terremondre himself.
“The Good Duke could turn a rhyme quite prettily, and he filled whole books with madrigals, epigrams, and stories. That is quite excusable. A far more serious matter, however, is that he sometimes permitted himself to jeer at the ceremonies of our holy religion, and even at the miracles performed by the intervention of Notre-Dame-des-Belles-Feuilles. I beg, gentlemen, that you will say nothing of all this; it must remain strictly between ourselves. I should be very sorry to hand over anecdotes such as these to feed the unhealthy curiosity of men like M. Mazure, and the malice of the public in general. The Duc de Brécé in question was my great-great-grandfather, and my family pride is great. I am sure you will not blame me for this.”
“Much valuable instruction and great consolations are to be derived from what you have just related to us, Monsieur,” said the Abbé. “The conclusion we arrive at is that France, which in the eighteenth century had turned away from Christianity, and was so steeped in wickedness, even to the very greatest in the land, that good men, such as your noble great-great-grandfather, pandered to the false philosophy; France, I say, punished for her crimes by a terrible revolution, is now amending her evil ways, and witnessing the return to piety of all classes of the nation, especially in the highest circles. Examples such as yours, Monsieur, are not to be ignored, and if the eighteenth century, taken altogether, appears as the century of crime, the nineteenth, judging by the attitude of the aristocracy, may, if I mistake not, be called the century of public penance.”
“God grant that you are right,” sighed M. Lerond. “But I dare not allow myself to hope. My profession as a man of law brings me into contact with the masses, and I invariably find them indifferent, and even hostile to religion. Let me tell you, M. l’Abbé, that my experience of the world leads me to share in the deep sorrow of the Abbé Lantaigne, and not in your optimistic view of things. Now, without going further afield, do you not see that this Christian land of Brécé has become the fief of the atheist and freemason, Dr. Cotard?”
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