The White Rose of Salency
“News! brilliant news!” said the gay Baroness sprinkling otto of roses on her guest’s pillow. “Do I not come to wake you like your poet’s charming queen of dreams?”
“I was dreaming,” she answered, starting up; “a traveller’s dismal dream. But what is the surprise, Baroness? or rather, tell me what is the joy it brings you?”
“You, you, la belle! Philippe comes with letters and gazettes — rumours have erred — bulletins and lists of the slain are corrected. We shall have an Englishman — a Scotchman, you would say, loaded with news and love-tokens. But keep your best start of surprise till you see him. What if your countryman, your chevalier should return alive!”
“Alive! — and Wallace says it!” Her start was of intense surprise but not of pleasure. If Wallace had spread this rumour, it must be false, and only a pretext for some new intrusion. “Baroness!” she said after a very long pause, “you are deceived yourself — I cannot — I will not be deceived.”
“No, my dear mourner — there is no occasion yet to change this delicate crape for white roses. But you read enigmas marvellously — Our informer’s name is Wallace and his figure is what you English call superb. Ah! I see you know him and are not surprised. I expected a delicious scene.”
Marianne had no talent for stage-effect and her emotion was too real to be picturesque. The Baroness, delighted to create a “sensation,” left her guest in all the pangs of uncertainty which she thought requisite to prepare her grand “effect.” With shrewdness worthy an old coquette, she imagined herself making an important discovery. Marianne’s quickness in guessing the name of their British informant, her slowness, almost repugnance to believe her betrothed husband still alive, implied a preference for the gay young Scotchman very consistent with his pretensions. The charitable Frenchwoman began to sigh at the dilemma in which her young friend would be place, and to calculate on a touching chapter of romance. The Baron had received a letter from Wallace complaining of an assault committed in the road to Salency and begging his influence with the police of Avignon where he lay wounded. Of Stewart the Baroness had heard nothing, but her random words did not fall powerless.
Marianne felt utterly horror-struck and bewildered. Was it possible that her heart had been so seared as to feel no joy at Stewart’s possible return? But how would they meet? If he remembered the dark hour of her childhood, what must he think of the night in Flanders? Her conjectures respecting it were all unsupported and might be audaciously denied. She had once dared to hope that Wallace had no longer power to pursue his devices, but they were, or seemed to be, already renewed. As usual in such purposes, his own work defeated itself. Calamity had given her mild spirit strength as an avalanche deepens the stream it covers. Yet she felt the dreadful certainty that widowhood would have been comparative repose.
Meantime the Baroness, full of “thick-coming fancies,” dispatched her courteous husband to visit Wallace. At the Pass of Isere, much sooner than he expected, he was stopped by the hosteller of a small chalet to be told that an English gentleman waited for him. Our Baron instantly alighted and was ushered into the room where a stranger lay on a couch playing at chess with a grave-looking Frenchman, professionally dressed. The sick man was dismally pale, his arm in a sling and half his face muffled, but when he spoke, the Baron felt the presence of a gentleman. He announced himself, spoke of his regret, his hospitality, the fine air of the province and his convenient chateau. The stranger answered with English brevity.
“I cannot be surprised at M. De Salency’s kindness — I owe much already to his son’s.” And he presented a letter from the Prefect of Avignon.
“Most welcome chevalier! Most felicitous opportunity to gratify him. Ah, ces coups de fortune. These kicks of fortune may come behind and man. Permit me to sympathize but there is a lady whose concern is more precious.”
The English man smiled at his surgeon. “Either this is a traveller’s dream or a singular meeting. Then you bring her, Baron? You are not alone?”
M. de Salency was a little startled by this cool confidence in a lady’s condescension. “Nobody can doubt the chevalier’s success — but English ladies have etiquettes — scruples — and young widowhood has its Dianas — statues of snow on pedestals of ice.”
“But I do not see in the least how they apply to me — unless they melt into tears.”
The Baron piqued himself on his tact in delicate matters and began to study a reply. His lady had described Wallace as he had appeared to her at the French opera in Paris, but this imperial-looking Englishman did not in the least resemble a petit-maître. He looked at the Prefect’s letter and at the credentials it enclosed. The writer earnestly commended the Englishman to the Baron’s regard and related the particulars of his hair-breadth escape from death. No invitation could be more courteously and cordially urgent than the Baron’s. He insisted on taking his new friend under instant arrest to Salency where, as he said, a white rose was ready to grace his pillow according to provincial usage. The surgeon interposed a caution against haste and a solemn sigh. His patient only answered, “Englishmen stop nowhere till they die.”
“Nor joke till they are dying,” said the Baron to himself; then echoing the surgeon’s sigh, he whispered, “What chagrin for the young widow!”
“English Dianas and white roses?” said the patient to his surgeon as the Baron traversed the chalet in quest of the freshest mules and most commodious conveyance. “Why, this is worse than the Barmecide treated Shacabac. He promised him lamb and pistachio-nuts — your Baron talks to me of snow and ice.”
“Not quite so shadowy,” answered the French Esculapius, somewhat piqued by his English patient’s incognito, and well skilled in probing mysteries. “Monsieur de Salency is a noble of the good old court, gallant as Balzac, brave as Byron — hospitable as you see. His ancestors gave on their saints’ day a coronet of white roses and a dower of fifty crowns to the worthiest maiden among their vassals — but neither the coronet nor the dower has claimants now.”
“The roses of Salency are not unblushing, perhaps?”
“Ah, chevalier, well guessed! But the fairest at Salency is one of England — a wife of two husbands, as some say — one slain at the great duke’s side — the other maimed in a scuffle with some mountaineer.”
“Snd the lady mourns for neither?”
In a most delicate fashion, I protest, and the Baroness is no mean instructor in etiquette. But the first husband is a Scotchman of high blood and thin purse. The Prefect of Avignon hints the consumption of his money is more incurable than any other malady — wine, women, and dice excepted.”
“But a little gold, doctor, might be administered to him or his gaoler?”
“You have used the right word, chevalier; this northern knight has been imprisoned by creditors and not by men of my profession. He has heard the lady — the soi-disant widow or bride — has been richly jointured by her second spouse, and would willingly share it if he can court or claim her—”
“As women choose to be,” interrupted the brief Englishman, and was silent several minutes while the shrewd physician studied his pulse. “You must be mediciner to this man’s malady,” he said, while he withdrew his hand and wrote a few lines to a banker at Avignon. “Let this prescription be quickly made up and administered as a patent draft of your own invention. Scotchmen are ancient Britons, and we Normans their successors. We owe them part of our inheritance.”
“And the lady may give him her golden branch to ensure him a safe passage from his purgatory?”
The Englishman deigned no answer, but after another pause he asked if the police had inquired into the assault described by the Scotch traveller and traced the offenders.
“Faith, no — these coup-gorge passes are too common now; and they have scented a rarer matter. Some Diana, as our Baron says, has descended from her pinnacle of ice and trusted a Swiss Endymion with a little unfledged cupid. She left him among wine-casks to be nursed by an old Belgian Bacchus, landlord of the Golden Stag at Coblentz.”
“A classic legend, Monsieur Bonavis. How must it be read in modern prose?”
“I should compose a new chapter. Your island Diana should transform her Swiss muleteer into a Baron’s son — retire to a Gascon chateau or build one on something firmer than a cloud — avow the little foundling generously and be wiser in future.”
“Good counsel, my friend, if she is not the Cynthia of a minute, and her cloud too thin for even a Gascon castle in the air. But who is this happy Cymon, and why in these days of reason and equality, trick him out as a Baron?”
Because nature has not made him a gentleman though she made him a baron’s son. This Claude, you must know, whose aliases are without end, is what you call natural son or — pardon me the coarse word, of our friend the Seigneur de Salency’s family — but reprobate — outcast — what we call water-thief.”
The physician’s gossiping seemed to have found male ears as willing listeners as any he had ever seen on ancient female skulls. He began to see in his English patient’s the organ of inquisitiveness.
“Well, Bonavis, finish your romance. Your gentle Iphigenia must be of course an Earl’s Heiress — and her booted enchanter a Marquis of Carabbas.”
“Ah, leave fair ladies to exalt their lovers — butterflies can contrive rope-ladders and heavens! — what a splendid one! — a real Papilio Io—” and in the triumph of science, he placed the glorious insect under the microscope.
“A moral to your tale, my friend — these gay creatures would overpower us if they were not devoured by their own parasites.”
But his laugh sank into a groan and he leaned on his physician’s shoulder in the strong agony of youth contending with death. The good-natured Frenchman whose love of anecdote had suspended his skill in symptoms, began to fear his beautiful winged Psyche came as an omen of a soul’s departure. He availed himself of the first pause in his patient’s struggles, to ask if he had any earthly wish unfulfilled.
“Nothing — nothing —” he answered. “I have been so long thought dead, my will is executed. But take that paper and use it when I am gone.”
Bonavis attempted to say something of the close air in this Swiss hut, and to recommand an instant removal to his hospitable patron’s chateau. But the Englishman ceased to breathe, and the physician glanced with pardonable haste at the name subscribed to the note which had been the last act of the dying man’s hand. He started at the name — at the probable consequence of his rash reports — at the deep calamity this moment might produce. And while he looked at the calm expression of his patient’s face, beautiful in the repose of sleep, he almost wished, at the risk of all his fame in science, that he might not awake again. “His last gift was to an enemy — his last thought of mercy — how could he die more nobly? But he is not dead — how little of him can die? For how much his short life was sufficient? His purposes were just and bountiful, and he pursued them fitly. Dare we think his Creator less wise? Even this insect’s life was a miracle and a blessing.”