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The Contract Part II

1

O’tis an accident that Heaven provides! — Shakespear

“Very hard!” said the Baroness de Salency’s chief waiting maid Perrette, “to be kept at home while all the vintagers are dancing, because my lord and lady expect sick Englishman! And I don’t know his name, or whether he is young or old!”

“But he saved their son’s life, mademoiselle!” returned Philippe, and ancient valet of importance, taking a large pinch of snuff from a box once used by the Prince de Condé.

“Oh, no doubt! It was very find and strange to be wounded at Busaco, robbed and half-strangled, and kept in a dungeon by those Spanish savages! — then it was so noble in our chevalier, who is certainly the bravest chevalier in the world, to beg he might be set free on his parole and all that. If this was not such a fine moonlight night!”

“But,” rejoined Philippe who had lived long enough in England to value an Englishman, “if he is too badly wounded to travel farther, the Baron cannot do less than give him a resting-place.”

“Certainly,” added Perrette, “and if your young English lady was not so grave she might have a chance of entertaining him too.”

“Have I not told you that Madame is a bride and may be a widow?”

“Is that all!” exclaimed the sprightly Norman dancing a pas-seul to the sound of the distant tabouret; “I thought she had lost her land, or birthright, or whatever the English call it, by a mischance. People say here that her father’s second wife had a daughter older than she is, and so —”

“Nonsense, Perrette. My lord, her father, the Earl of Mornay married the Scotch lady who died here — that is — he said he had married her when she had brought him a daughter — that daughter Emilia they call his heiress now, you know.”

“But I don’t know why!” retorted Perette. “You say he only said he had married her: — then if he had another wife before who was this young lady Marianne’s mother, why is she not an heiress too?”

“Because — because,” said Philippe rather embarrassed by this casuistry, “because he said she was his wife nobody knows when — at least nobody remembers who she was — and so they asked the Lords of Session.”

“Dear! if nobody knew, how could they tell? — and pray, what are lords of session?”

“Lords who do nothing but sit, and a terrible time they sat about it. Then the English Chancellor sat still longer, which is the reason, I suppose, that he sits on a woolsack.”

“How droll and convenient! — but what did he say?”

“He said — he said my young lady was *a fiction of Scotch law*.”

“A fiction! What is that?”

“Why, Perrette, begging your pardon, it is the same as if he had said that she was what the Scotch law makes so much of.”

“Well, Philippe,” continued the fille-de-chambre whose shrewd commonsense was not to be baffled even by Scotch law, “if a gentleman says the same thing of two ladies as your lord did, which is the proper wife? — and if they both have daughters, which is the proper daughter?”

“I cannot tell you, indeed!” replied Philippe with sorrowful simplicity, “but the lawyers could.”

“But I doubt they could not. And pray, monsieur, if this young lady had no proper papa, how came she to be travelling with the Countess who was not her mama?”

“That is Scotch custom — feudal custom, they say, mademoiselle. Right- and left-handed wives and children live altogether.”

“Why, I don’t see any difference. No wonder they have great clans and feuds enough, I dare say. But has the Lady Emilia all, and must this lady Marianne Douglas, as you call her, have nothing?”

“Ah, there was misfortune! My lord died suddenly and no last leaf to his will!”

“What! had it no end? — and is she without a sous?”

“She would have had none if she had not been affianced — betrothed, as the English say, to Lord Stewart.”

“The bright-haired merry Scotsman?”

“No, the English Marquis of Dromone — but he is gone — killed or lost they say! He was a noble gentleman and left her great estate. Hush! hark! do you not hear wheels in the courtyard?”

“Ah, ah, my good friend Philippe, you shall not escape. There are two ways of telling that story. They say Lord Stewart liked the lady Emilia best, but when he heard this lady Marianne was made poor — so very poor all at once, he came and promised to marry her — the day, ay only the day before he sailed to that great city which was lost.”

“Well do I remember it!” said the kind old man whose heart was warmed and opened by a flask of Frontignac; “And I remember there was a ball because the Avocat Glenalmond whose grandfather had fought for Prince Charles Stewart was made an Earl again. Everybody wore white roses, and my lady Marianne looked like one herself — so fair and so pale! for her daughter was dead, and her stepmother was not so kind then; and the proud Scotch ladies stood far off. But when the young English marquis came among them, they all sparkled and fluttered, as you would have done, Perrette, to see who he would choose — and he chose my young lady — my good young lady, though she was so poor, before them all!”

“Now, Philippe, I have heard your story as you heard mine, and very pretty ones they are both — and I wish I had been at that ball for the mandolines sound merrily. But the Baroness is waiting for me to put on her rouge before the new visitor comes, and now the portal-bell rings in earnest. Adieu, Philippe! I will be your partner next.”

*  *  *

The litter or bier of the invalid was scarcely in the hall before he was overwhelmed by the clamorous energy of a French welcome. The servants, excited by curiosity to gaze on an English stranger, perhaps a duke or a price in such mysterious circumstances, devised a thousand pretexts to surround him, and the Baron’s family were too vehement in their own gestures and exclamations to see cause for rebuke. The crowd and the confusion, notwithstanding the attendant surgeon’s earnest entreaties that both might be diminished, prevented Marianne from obtaining more than a glance, but it was sufficient. She stood silent, cold, and motionless as marble, and the bier passed away.

The Baroness returned in a few moments. “He suffers less and is calm, either in stupor or sleep. Our physician thinks his voice and memory may return when he awakes, and he may wish to dictate a farewell to his English friends. He has spoken words we cannot comprehend and made earnest signs that they should be written. Pray, assist us!”

Incapable of words or tears, yet feeling the vital importance of this opportunity, Marianne followed the Baroness to her guest’s couch. The chaplain and physician had retired into the next apartment to seek some reviving essence. What a moment! Should he die without receiving any token of her presence, yet how could one be given without disturbing the tranquillity on which his last hope of existence rested? But the moment was not lost. She placed on the damp cold hand a ring bearing her name, and at the same instant saw a haggard face between the window-curtains — the face of a man as squalid in apparel.

The Baroness returned and found her writing. “Read!” she whispered, and the lady read these words: “A spy lurks near the window — leave me and send help!”

With all her foibles, Madame de Salency had courage and quick sense. She instantly felt the wisdom of Marianne’s expedient and obeyed. Danger roused and assembled our heroine’s faculties. She loosened her long hair over her face and rested it on her folded hands as if asleep. In a few moments she heard a movement of the curtains, then a deep breath and a step near the bed which made her heart stand still. When its pulse returned she found herself in her own chamber supported by the Baroness lavishing praises and congratulations. She told her the ruffian had been seized in the garden with jewels he had stolen, and no tumult had interrupted the sleep which had restored a chance of Stewart’s life. But the next day and the next passed, the surgeon still insisting that none except himself should approach his patient. On the third she was informed that a cartel had arrived to remove exchanged prisoners, and that the English officer was now in a fit state to be conveyed to a safer resting-place. “I understand,” she replied in a calm low tone and spoke no more. The pang given by this intimation of death, as she interpreted it, was less that that of hope deferred, or suspense without hope.

“What an Englishwoman!” exclaimed the Baroness seating herself in her won saloon, near a pyramid of pineapple-ice. “No gesture, no grace, no sensibility! Not even the charming surprise, nor that picturesque-looking brigand could move her. But she was educated, it seems, by the dear Countess’s prim sister Barbara — You recollect her, Bonavis?”

“I remember,” said the family man of medicine, “all the antiquities and traditions of the clan. Have I your permission, Baroness, to attend the prisoner, Claude Larron?”

“By all mean, my dear friend! I long to hear his story of the convent where he was gardener. Pray ask him if he saw our adorable Countess there — and don’t forget my necklace. The wretch! — he has spoiled my best set of turquoises unless he restores it.” And the adorable Countess’s dear friend departed.

“Shall I accompany you?” asked the confessor of the chateau, when her step was no longer heard. “That fellow has seen and talked too much!” returned M. Bonavis assuming a shrewd aspect. “It would be well to warn the young English lady against his malice.”

“Better to acquaint a sufficient protector,” said Father Anselme drily.

“Take my word,” answered the medical confidant, “for my profession opens the way to hearts no less than yours, nothing must be said. He has all the stern pride of his cold island, and would scorn a wife whose name could be the subject of a felon’s tales in prison. Besides, a physician’s first care is his patient’s health, and the least excitement may destroy it.”

“She is to be the sacrifice then,” said the priest, “because this Claude Larron is a tell-tale too amusing to be hanged immediately. But she can leave France, and these whispers will die when her stepmother’s friends are tired of listening.”

“Reverend Father, there is another secret in this business — the Englishman has dictated a letter to his betrothed wife, and he told me, if his health was hopeless, to send it without delay to England. But I assured him, and you know my experience, that the haemorrhage and ophthalmia would yield to my system.”

The chaplain smiled quietly at the importance given by so much knowledge, and was too discreet to avow himself in possession of other secrets.

Father Anselme entered Marianne’s apartment with the meek and cautious air usually acquired by the confessor of a courtier’s family. Finding her calm though languid, he approached her gravely and said, “I have waited for this opportunity to speak on subjects which deserve your ear in private.”

Marianne assumed an attitude of grateful respects, but her paleness shewed painful expectation.

“I hoped,” he continued, “to have been the comforter of your mother-in-law’s death-bed. Providence has ordered otherwise; but while at Salency she thought fit to entrust me with a document — an attested document which she wrote as an atonement for the past, and which, as her confessor I demanded as the most useful earthly penance. It shall be sent to England to prevent mischiefs of unknown consanguinity. More, I fear, it cannot do: the laws have given your reputed sister Emilia the benefit of her mother’s marriage with your father a few months after her birth — a grievous evidence of their abuse!”

Marianne uttered neither question nor comment, and the priest continued.

“She has sinned and suffered — I ought to say, she suffered because she sinned.”

“Alas, sir!” Marianne replied in agony, “the innocent suffer also!”

“That they may suffer even to the third or fourth generation, ought to be an obstacle to quiet. This is no oriental poetry, no menace of avenging power, but the inevitable consequence of acts which break the links of social order — those laws which God has written on our hearts, his most marvellous tablets. But the dead are in his presence and I come to speak of the living. The young Englishman — do not shrink from a friend, my good child — The memory of those who loved us is pleasant even among graves.”

Tears, as the good priest hoped, gave relief to feelings too long and severely suppressed. “Shall we never learn,” he said at length, “to act as if we knew that graves are near the youngest, the loveliest, the most prosperous! The penitent now in hers told me you were affianced by the most solemn contract, by early affection, and by —”

Marianne ceased to weep and covered her face with both her hands. “Be comforted, I have a communication to make from another penitent. Claude Larron, now imprisoned for felony committed at Salency, confesses that he took a ring from the English stranger’s hand while he slept — a ring which bears your name and which he says he saw you give him. Is this truth? But I see it is. Fear nothing, it shall be restored.” And blessing her with tears in his eyes he departed without waiting for reply.

Bonavis met him on the stairs and shook his hand heartily. “All is well; you know a summons was written for the lady to attend her husband — I have told him she is here.”

“And all the truth, I hope! What did he say?”

“Say! — there is no saying how this Englishman masters our hearts. I shall lose the credit of his care, but he said he would not die now.”

“No, nor till many years hence, I pray. He has the bounty of an emperor: — there is the old servant Philippe sobbing for joy. If I was there Shakespear’s Oberon, I would see their meeting.”

We who have Oberon’s privilege, will listen to some part of their conversation.

*  *  *

“Forgive the Baroness, Marianne! She loves mystery and would not shew the way to paradise unless she could cheat the angel at the gate. But my way is cruelly short — the cartel waits for me and perhaps another messenger —”

She raised her eyes and saw from the window the white flag of the cartel flying as a signal of its departure. She also saw “death’s pale ensign” in the speaker’s face and instantly replied, “I have promised — I am prepared.” He paused, as if expecting her to add more, then spoke himself in broken sentences.

“I wrote my request, but I see it is not legible — it must be spoken now. My successor is poor and prodigal — he may dispute my testamentary deed, but he dare not resist the rights of a widow, which betrothment is not sufficient to ensure. A Lutheran minister is here; condescend to repeat our marriage now, obscure and hasty as it may be and unworthy of you; a public celebration shall be our first act in England. The voyage is short, but life may be still shorter.”

Her silence was assent enough. He looked on her an instant with fervent yet sorrowful earnestness, and admitted Philippe with Father Anselme and a Protestant chaplain followed by the Baron and Baroness de Salency. Marianne remained by his side, pale and trembling but resolved.

“There is no time to lose!” the physician whispered as he stood behind the clergyman who advanced immediately and began the ritual of the English church. Stewart attempted to rise but the damps of mortal agony were on his brow. “Remain on the couch,” said the good pastor, “God sees our hearts!” and he began to dictate the nuptial vow, but paused seeing his inability to speak.

“Let it suffice — he assents,” said Anselme in extreme anxiety. “Speak, child! Let him hear your vow.” Marianne shivered convulsively but forced her cold and colourless lips to articulate an affirmative.

“In the presence of God and Man ye are united!” added both the priests, and tears mingled with their blessing. Philippe wrung his hands and Anselme forced him from the room while Bonavis endeavoured to recall life. He succeeded, and after a long struggle Stewart was heard to speak — “Are there witnesses? Is it sufficient? O God forgive me and grant an hour — a few moments longer.”

“She has swooned,” replied the physician, “but she recovers. Take courage, lady, be composed. Take hope, too; the spasm is past and the danger.”

“Come with us to England,” said Stewart, grasping his hand.

“There, anywhere, everywhere I would go with you if I could!” exclaimed Bonavis, “but I will accompany you to the cartel.”

“And here,” said Anselme, “is the restored ring. Let it be a wedding-gift, with mine, and yours, and all our blessings resting on it.”

“Pasta will not sing in the first act,” said the Baroness de Salency to her cavalier; “I shall have time to refresh my bouquetière and you may try to make me comprehend this romance.”

“Fit for les Causes Célèbres!” answered Wallace smiling gracefully. “Yet this Stewart as he calls himself, shews a boldness of design and an intrepid skill in practice deserving —”

“The Golden Thistle, perhaps, which our charming queen gave the best ass-racer! Let me hear the true history before my roses droop.”

“Well, Baroness, two children were saved from a broken cabriolet in an avalanche by a strolling Swiss boy and a stout wolf-dog. Both were brought to England and petted with those children — my defunct cousin and Mademoiselle Marianne, but the boy returned to his first home. At least I saw him near it, and travellers among the glaciers need St. Julien’s help if they meet his namesake.”

“Can this strolling outlaw — this Julien be the superb person we have seen! — with so much tact and noble air!”

“Consider, madame, how little was required to personate an invalid a few days among strangers. He was always a fine mimic — he knew my cousin’s habits, and resembles him in age and stature. He knew the lady too and — and in short we know they met on her road from Brussels and might have contrived the meeting at Salency. Her recognizance was enough to satisfy generous spectators.”

“But your family — and her friends in England! Our Scuderi or Le Sage never fancied a bolder adventure.”

“You will see, Baroness, some pretext raised to avoid or pay brief visits to the real Stewart’s home. My family are proud, I confess, therefore no very cordial friends of an errant damsel without place or parentage.”

“Ah! now I see the mesalliance is not so great between the soi-disant lady and a hunter of the Alps. Really, as you say, there is in him a most heroic firmness of purpose, and her self-abandonment is quite sublime. What a delicious subject for a vaudeville or a tableau!”

Wallace smiled most blandly as he answered, “Both were pensioned by my uncle’s charity, and as they have eaten bread and salt with me, I must keep Arab faith with them. Allow me to use your pen, and my proposal may have the benefit of its magic.”

The French lady returned his smile, and read the programme of the next opera while he wrote this letter.

You are at liberty to burn or publish this letter. It repeats distinctly my first offer. Consider it, as no other can be gained from my lenity or contempt.

No particular of your conduct is a secret to me, however others may seem ignorant. To the person you call your husband ignorance or indulgence may be good policy. He is an impostor and you know it. You must know a man entitled to the high name he bears, honoured as it is by the brave soldier who has perished, would not have accepted a woman sullied by such mysteries as those at Brussels. You and the world will soon know why he — the adventurer who profits by your fears and his own audacity, chose to have a mockery of marriage hurriedly performed in a stranger’s house and a foreign land, before he attempted to delude others. The public or at least a judicial power shall decide whether a fortunate and celebrated bridegroom would have stolen from his English home, family and friends to hide himself in a French province — the favorite refuge of vagrants and felons under assumed names with borrowed money.

Perhaps you have not forgotten a passage almost amounting to a complete pre-contract. I insist on nothing you wish to cancel, but if you had chosen to escape the wretched thraldom you are involved in, that pre-contract would have given you safe and creditable means.

Thus far my personal regard for you has led me. It extends no farther. My revenues are sufficient for my station and I care little for the trifle I might gain by proving the real Henry Stewart died in battle. Let his family and his father’s friends enjoy their mistake. I allow the impostor some merit if he can represent him.

Now, madam, decide this ingenious person’s destiny. If you and he remain in a foreign and quiet retirement, it shall be undisturbed. But if false pretences are raised to question my inheritance, or any future claimants reared, the usurper of my cousin’s name and place shall be unmasked and your motives for accepting a nominal husband laid bare to public scorn. Your marriage, such as it is, must have no results to torment a family too much disgraced already.

Publish or conceal this letter as you think fit. I write it in the presence of a witness no less disposed to screen you secret and the partner you have chosen, than

W. D. Stewart.

“Nothing, dear madam, could be more unfit for such a subject!” said Wallace, gaily touching the jewelled pen in the Baroness de Salency’s ink-standish.

“You forget your own poet,” she answered with a charming smile. “Time has a soft down-feather in his wing.”

“To touch love-quarrels, perhaps, but not such frauds. No, believe me, I told the lady my suspicions, and you have heard or seen the proofs. Consider the hasty marriage, the evident surprise at the first meeting in your presence — in short the total improbability that the stranger brought here as my kinsman was or could be identified.”

“But, Monsieur Wallace, think of the audacity!”

“Think of the prize, Baroness! — a pretty bride, a fair name and a good estate. Henry Stewart, we know, fell from his horse desperately wounded in the last battle. His remains were not positively found, but no doubt were among those honourably buried.”

“Then the lady admits your doubt, yet abides the consequences?”

“She must, Madame, but your superior sex have always a resource. She will shelter her hesitation under the convenient pretext of a pre-contract to another suitor, gracefully cast aside till now.”

“Ah, chevalier! delicately hinted — but may not these doubts and questionings of her husband’s right to be too much like a disappointed suitor’s?”

“If Madame had disappointed me, perhaps I might have hazarded any invention to regain her — but Marianne is not the Baronne de Salency, those this man may be a Martin.”

Nothing could be added to this argument, and Wallace implored secrecy with an air of generous self-denial, alleging his reluctance to publish and imposture by which a friendless female had been duped and robbed more irretrievably than himself. The Frenchwoman smiled and accepted his escort to the opera, while her confidante Perrette retired from the keyhole.

If Marianne had really received from Wallace this terrible intimation that she was now the companion of a second Martin Guerre, she appeared either as entirely deceived as Martin’s wife had been, or as willing to conceal distrust. Yet the anxiety she professed concerning the result of the pretended pre-contract, her refusal to permit a second and more public ceremonial of marriage between Stewart and herself, added to other symptoms of reserve or constraint, might have seemed the consequence of suspicion. She might prefer a semblance of over-strained caution to the risk of provoking a personal and fatal quarrel between Wallace and the accused. But the caution, as usual in such cases, neither produced good nor prevented evil; and absolute frankness on either side would have done both.