FROM THE MS. OF PROFESSOR WITTEMBACH
"Théodore," said Professor Wittembach, "please give me that manuscript-book, bound in parchment, which is laid on the second shelf above my writing-desk—no, not that one, but the small octavo volume. I copied all the notes of my journal of 1866 in it—at least those that relate to Count Szémioth."
The Professor put on his glasses, and, amid profound silence, read the following:—
with this Lithuanian proverb as a motto:
"Miszka su Lokiu,
Abu du tokiu."
Abu du tokiu."
When the first translation of the Holy Scriptures into the Lithuanian language appeared in London, I published in the Scientific and Literary Gazette of Kœnigsberg, an article wherein, while rendering full justice to the efforts of the learned interpreter and to the pious motives of the Bible Society, I pointed out several slight errors, and showed, moreover, that this version could only be useful to one portion of the Lithuanian people.
Indeed, the dialect from which they translated is hardly intelligible to the inhabitants of the districts where the Jomaïtic tongue, commonly called Jmoude, is spoken, namely, in the Palatinate of Samogitia. This language is, perhaps, nearer akin to the Sanskrit than to High Lithuanian. In spite of the furious criticisms which this observation drew down upon me from a certain well-known professor of the Dorpat University, it so far enlightened the members of the Committee of the Bible Society that they lost no time in making me a flattering offer to direct and supervise an edition of the Gospel of St. Matthew into Samogitian. I was too much occupied at the time with my researches in Trans-Uralian dialects to undertake a more extended work comprising all four of the Gospels. Deferring my marriage with Mlle. Gertrude Weber, I went to Kowno (Kaunas) for the purpose of collecting all the linguistic records, whether printed or in MSS., of Jmoude, that I could lay hands on. I did not overlook, of course, old ballads (daïnos), tales, or legends (pasakos) which would furnish me with material for a Jomaïtic vocabulary, a work which must necessarily precede that of translation.
I had been given a letter of introduction to the young Count Michel Szémioth, whose father, I was told, had come into the possession of the famous Catechismus Samogiticus of Father Lawiçki. It was so rare that its very existence had been disputed, particularly by the Dorpat professor to whom allusion has been already made. In his library I should find, according to the information given me, an old collection of daïnos, besides ballads in old Prussian. Having written to Count Szémioth to lay the object of my visit before him, I received a most courteous invitation to spend as much time at his Castle of Médintiltas as my researches might need. He ended his letter by very gracefully saying that he prided himself upon speaking Jmoude almost as well as his peasants, and would be only too pleased to help me in what he termed so important and interesting an undertaking. Besides being one of the wealthiest landowners in Lithuania, he was of the same evangelical faith of which I had the honour to be a minister. I had been warned that the Count was not without a certain peculiarity of character, but he was very hospitable, especially towards all who had intellectual tastes. So I set out on my journey to Médintiltas.
At the Castle steps I was met by the Count's steward, who immediately led me to the rooms prepared for me.
"M. le Comte," he said, "is most sorry not to be able to dine with you to-day. He has a bad headache, a malady he is unfortunately subject to. If you do not prefer to dine in your room you can dine with the Countess's doctor, Dr. Frœber. Dinner will be ready in an hour; do not trouble to dress for it. If you have any orders to give, there is the bell."
He withdrew, making me a profound salute.
The room was of immense size, comfortably furnished, and decorated with mirrors and gilding. One side of it looked out upon a garden, or rather the park belonging to the Castle, and the other upon the principal entrance. Notwithstanding the statement that there was no need to dress, I felt obliged to get my black coat out of my trunk, and was in my shirt-sleeves busy unpacking my simple luggage when the sound of carriage wheels attracted me to the window which looked on the court. A handsome barouche had just come in. It contained a lady in black, a gentleman, and a woman dressed in the Lithuanian peasant costume, but so tall and strong-looking that at first I took her for a man in disguise. She stepped out first; two other women, not less robust in appearance, were already standing on the steps. The gentleman leant over the lady dressed in black, and, to my great surprise, unbuckled a broad leather belt which held her to her seat in the carriage. I noticed that this lady had long white hair, very much dishevelled, and that her large, wide-opened eyes were vacant in expression. She looked like a waxen figure. After having untied her, her companion spoke to her very respectfully, hat in hand; but she appeared not to pay the slightest attention to him. He then turned to the servants and made a slight sign with his head. Immediately the three women took hold of the lady in black, lifted her out as though she were a feather, and carried her into the Castle, in spite of her efforts to cling to the carriage. The scene was witnessed by several of the house servants, who did not appear to think it anything extraordinary.
The gentleman who had directed the proceedings drew out his watch, and asked how soon dinner would be ready.
"In a quarter of an hour, doctor," was the reply.
I guessed at once that this was Dr. Frœber, and that the lady in black was the Countess. From her age I concluded she was the mother of Count Szémioth, and the precautionary measures taken concerning her told me clearly enough that her reason was affected.
Some moments later the doctor himself came to my room.
"As the Count is indisposed," he said to me, "I must introduce myself to you. I am Dr. Frœber, at your service, and I am delighted to make the acquaintance of a savant known to all readers of the Scientific and Literary Gazette of Kœnigsberg. Have you been properly waited on?"
I replied to his compliments as well as I could, and told him that if it was time to go down to dinner I was ready to accompany him.
When we were in the dining-hall, a major-domo brought us liqueurs and several piquant and highly spiced dishes on a silver salver to induce appetite, after a northern custom.
"Allow me, sir, in my office as doctor, to recommend a glass of that Starka, a true Cognac brandy casked forty years ago. It is a queen of liqueurs. Take a Drontheim anchovy; nothing is better for opening and preparing the digestive organs, the most important functions of the body.... And now to table. Why do we not speak in German? You come from Kœnigsberg, I from Memel; but I took my degree at Jéna. We shall be more at ease in that way, and the servants, who only know Polish and Russian, will not understand us."
We ate at first in silence; then, after having taken our first glass of Madeira, I inquired of the doctor if the Count were often inconvenienced by the indisposition which deprived us of his presence that night.
"Yes and no," was the doctor's answer. "It depends upon what expeditions he takes."
"When he takes the road to Rosienie, for instance, he comes back with headache, and in a savage temper."
"I have been to Rosienie myself without such an experience."
"It depends, Professor," he replied, laughing, "on whether you are in love."
I sighed, thinking of Mlle. Gertrude Weber.
"Does the Count's fiancée, then, live at Rosienie?" I said.
"Yes, in that neighbourhood; but I cannot say whether she is affianced to him. She is a real flirt, and will drive him off his head, so that he will be in his mother's state."
"Indeed, then her ladyship is ... an invalid?"
"She is mad, my dear sir, mad; and I was even madder to come here!"
"Let us hope that your able attentions will restore her to reason."
The doctor shook his head, and looked attentively at the colour of the glass of Bordeaux which he held in his hand.
"The man you see before you, Professor, was once surgeon-major in the Kalouga regiment. At Sevastopol we cut off arms and legs from morning till night; not to speak of bombs which came down among us as thick as flies on a galled horse. But, though I was then ill-lodged and ill-fed, I was not so bored as I am here, where I eat and drink of the best, am lodged like a prince, and paid like a Court physician.... But liberty, my dear sir!... As you can guess, with this she-dragon I have not a moment to call my own."
"Has she been under your care for long?"
"Less than two years; but she has been insane at least twenty-seven, since before the birth of the Count. Did no one tell you this either at Rosienie or Kowno? Listen, then, for it is a case on which I should like some day to write an article for the Medical Journal of St. Petersburg. She went mad from fear...."
"From fear? How was such a thing possible?"
"She had a fright. She is of the house of Keystut.... Oh, there are no mésalliances in this house. We descend from the Gédymin.... Well, Professor, two or three days after her marriage, which took place in the castle where we are dining (I drink to your health ...), the Count, the father of the present one, went out hunting. Our Lithuanian ladies are regular amazons, you know. The Countess accompanied him to the hunt.... She stayed behind, or got in advance of the huntsmen,... I do not know which,... when, all at once, the Count saw the Countess's little Cossack, a lad of twelve or fourteen, come up at full gallop.
"'Master!' he said, 'a bear has carried off the Countess.'
"'Where?' cried the Count.
"'Over there,' replied the boy-Cossack.
"All the hunt ran towards the spot he pointed out, but no Countess was to be seen. Her strangled horse lay on one side, and on the other her lambs-wool cloak. They searched and beat the wood on all sides. At last a huntsman cried out, 'There is the bear!' and, sure enough, the bear crossed a clearing, dragging the Countess, no doubt for the purpose of devouring her undisturbed, into a thicket, for these beasts are great gourmands; they like to dine at ease, as the monks. Married but a couple of days, the Count was most chivalrous. He tried to fling himself upon the bear, hunting knife in his fist; but, my dear sir, a Lithuanian bear does not let himself be run through like a stag. By good fortune the Count's gun-bearer, a queer, low fellow, so drunk that morning as to be unable to tell a rabbit from a hare, fired his rifle, more than a hundred paces off, without taking care whether the bullet hit the beast or the lady...."
"And he killed the bear?"
"Stone dead. It takes a tipsy man to hit like that. There are also predestined bullets, Professor. There are sorcerers here who sell them at a moderate price.... The Countess was terribly torn, unconscious, of course, and had one leg broken. They carried her home, and she recovered consciousness, but her reason had gone. They took her to St. Petersburg for a special consultation of four doctors, who glittered with orders. They said that Madam was enceinte, and that a favourable turn might be expected after her delivery. She was to be kept in fresh air in the country, and given whey and codéine. Each physician received about a hundred roubles. Nine months later the Countess gave birth to a fine, healthy boy, but where was the 'favourable turn'? Ah, yes, indeed ... there was nothing but redoubled frenzy. The Count showed her her son. In novels that never fails to produce a good effect. 'Kill it! kill the beast!' she yelled; a little longer, and she would have wrung his neck. Ever since there have been phases of stupid imbecility, alternating with violent mania. There is a strong suicidal tendency. We are obliged to strap her down to make her take fresh air, and it takes three strong servants to hold her in. Nevertheless, Professor, I ask you to note this fact, when I have exhausted my Latin on her without making her obey me, I have a resort that quietens her. I threaten to cut off her hair. I fancy she must have had very beautiful hair at one time. Vanity! It is the sole human feeling left. Is it not odd? If I could experiment upon her as I chose, I might perhaps be able to cure her."
"By what method?"
"By thrashing her. I cured in that way twenty peasant women in a village where the terrible Russian madness (the hurlement) had broken out. One woman begins to howl, then her companion follows, and in three days' time the whole village is howling mad. I put an end to it by flogging them. (Take a little chicken, it is very tender.) The Count would never allow me to try the experiment."
"What! you wanted him to consent to your atrocious treatment?"
"Oh, he had known his mother so little, and besides it was for her good; but tell me, Professor, have you ever held that fear could drive anyone mad?"
"The Countess's situation was frightful ... to find herself in the claws of a savage beast!"
"All the same, her son does not take after her. A year ago he was in exactly the same predicament, but, thanks to his coolness, he had a marvellous escape."
"From the claws of a bear?"
"A she-bear, the largest seen for some time. The Count wanted to attack her, boar-spear in hand, but with one back stroke she parried the blade, clutched the Count, and felled him to the ground as easily as I could upset this bottle. He cunningly feigned death.... The bear smelt and sniffed him, then, instead of tearing him to pieces, she gave him a lick with her tongue. He had the presence of mind not to move, and she went on her way."
"She thought that he was dead. I have been told that these animals will not eat a dead body."
"We will endeavour to believe that is so, and abstain from making personal investigation of the question. But, apropos of fear, let me tell you what happened at Sevastopol. Five or six of us were sitting behind the ambulance of the famous bastion No. 5, round a pot of beer which had been brought us. The sentry cried, 'A shell!' and we all lay flat on our stomachs. No, not all of us: a fellow named ... but it is not necessary to give his name ... a young officer who had just come to us, remained standing up, holding his glass full, just when the shell burst. It carried off the head of my poor comrade André Speranski, a brave lad, and broke the pitcher, which, fortunately, was nearly empty. When we got up after the explosion we saw, in the midst of the smoke, that our friend had swallowed his last mouthful of beer just as though nothing had happened. We dubbed him a hero. The following day I met Captain Ghédéonof coming out of the hospital. 'I dine with you fellows to-day,' he said, 'and to celebrate my return I will stand the champagne.' We sat down to the table, and the young officer of the beer was there. He did not wait for the champagne. A bottle was being uncorked near him, and fizz! the cork hit him on the temple. He uttered a cry and fainted away. Believe me, my hero had been devilishly afraid the first time, and his drinking the beer instead of getting out of the way showed that he had lost the control of his mind, and only unconscious mechanical movements remained to him. Indeed, Professor, the human mechanism—"
"Sir," said a servant who had just come into the room, "Jdanova says that the Countess will not take her food."
"Devil take her!" growled the doctor. "I must go to her. When I have made my she-dragon eat, Professor, if agreeable to you, we will take a hand at préférence or at douratchki."
I expressed my regret that I was ignorant of the games, and, when he had gone to see the invalid, I went up to my room and wrote to Mlle. Gertrude.
It was a warm night, and I had left open the window overlooking the park. I did not feel ready for sleep after I finished my letter, so I set to work to rehearse the irregular Lithuanian verbs, and to look into Sanskrit to find the origins of their different irregularities. In the middle of my absorbing labours a tree close to my window shook violently. I could hear the dead branches creak, and it seemed as though some heavy animal were trying to climb it. Still engrossed with the bear stories that the doctor had told me, I got up, feeling rather uneasy, and saw, only a few feet from my window, a human head among the leaves of the tree, lit up plainly by the light from my lamp. The vision only lasted a second, but the singular brilliance of the eyes which met my gaze struck me more than I could say. Involuntarily I took a step backwards; then I ran to the window and demanded in severe tones what the intruder wanted. Meanwhile he climbed down quickly, and, seizing a large branch between both hands, he swung himself off, jumped to the ground, and was soon out of sight. I rang the bell and told the adventure to a servant who answered it.
"Sir," he said, "you must be mistaken."
"I am certain of what I tell you," I replied. "I am afraid there is a burglar in the park."
"It is impossible, sir."
"Well, then, is it someone out of the house?" The servant opened his eyes wide without replying, and in the end asked me if I wanted anything. I told him to fasten my window, and I went to bed.
I slept soundly, neither dreaming of bears nor of thieves. In the morning, while I was dressing, someone knocked at my door. I opened it and found myself face to face with a very tall and finely built young man in a Bokhara dressing-gown, holding in his hand a long Turkish pipe.
"I come to beg your pardon, Professor," he said, "for having welcomed such a distinguished guest so badly. I am Count Szémioth."
I hastened to say that, on the contrary, my humble thanks were due to him for his most courteous hospitality, and inquired if he had lost his headache.
"Very nearly," he said. "At all events, until the next crisis," he added, with a melancholy expression. "Are you comfortable here? You must not forget that you are among barbarians; it would be difficult to think otherwise in Samogitia."
I assured him I was most comfortably entertained. All the time I was speaking I could not prevent myself from studying him with a very impolite curiosity; there was something strange in his look which reminded me, in spite of myself, of the man whom I had seen climbing the tree the night before....
"But what probability," I said to myself, "is there that Count Szémioth would climb trees by night?"
His forehead was high and well—developed, although rather narrow. His features were large and regular, but his eyes were too close together, and I did not think that, measured from one lacrymal gland to the other, there was the width of an eye, the canon of Greek sculptors. His glance was piercing. Our eyes met several times, in spite of ourselves, and we looked at each other with some embarrassment. All at once the Count burst out laughing.
"You recognise me!" he said.
"Yes, you detected me yesterday playing a scoundrelly part."
"Oh! Monsieur le Comte!"
"I had passed a suffering day shut up in my bedroom. As I was somewhat better at night I went for a walk in the garden. I saw your light and yielded to curiosity.... I ought to have told you who I was, and introduced myself properly, but I was in such a ridiculous situation.... I was ashamed, and so I fled.... Will you excuse me for having disturbed you in the midst of your work?"
He said all this with a would-be playful air; but he blushed, and was evidently confused. I did my best to reassure him that I did not retain any unpleasant impression from our first interview, and, to change the subject, I asked him if he really possessed the Samogitic Catechism of Father Lawiçki.
"It may be so; but, to tell you the truth, I do not know much about my father's library. He loved old and rare books. I hardly read anything beyond modern works; but we will look for it, Professor. You wish us, then, to read the Gospel in Jmoudic?"
"Do you not consider, M. le Comte, that a translation of the Scriptures into the language of this country is very desirable?"
"Certainly; nevertheless, if you will permit me a slight remark, I can tell you that amongst the people who know no other language than the Jmoudic, there is not a single person who can read."
"Perhaps so, but I ask permission of Your Excellency to point out that the greatest obstacle in the way of learning to read is the absence of books. When the Samogitic countries have a printed text they will wish to read it, and will learn to read. This has already happened in the case of many savage races ... not that I wish to apply such a term to the people of this country.... Furthermore," I went on, "is it not a deplorable thing that a language should disappear, leaving no trace behind? Prussian became a dead language thirty years ago, and the last person who knew Cornic died the other day."
"Sad," interrupted the Count. "Alexander Humboldt told my father he had met with a parrot in America that was the only living thing which knew several words of the language of a tribe now entirely wiped out by small-pox. Will you allow me to order our tea here?"
While we drank tea the conversation turned upon the Jmoudic tongue. The Count found fault with the way Germans print Lithuanian, and he was right.
"Your alphabet," he said, "does not lend itself to our language. You have neither our J, nor our L, V, or Ë. I have a collection of daïnos published last year at Kœnigsberg, and I had immense trouble to understand the words, they are so queerly formed."
"Your Excellency probably speaks of Lessner's daïnos?"
"Yes, it is very vapid poetry, do you not think?"
"He might perhaps have selected better. I admit that, as it is, this collection has but a purely philological interest; but I believe if careful search were made one would succeed in collecting the most perfect flowers of your folk-poetry."
"Alas! I doubt it very much, in spite of my patriotic desires."
"A few weeks ago a very fine ballad was given me at Wilno—an historical one.... It is a most remarkable poem.... May I read it? I have it in my bag."
"With the greatest pleasure."
He buried himself in an armchair, after asking permission to smoke.
"I can't understand poetry unless I smoke," he said.
"It is called The Three Sons of Boudrys."
"The Three Sons of Boudrys?" exclaimed the Count, with a gesture of surprise.
"Yes, Boudrys, as Your Excellency knows better than I, is an historic character."
The Count looked at me fixedly with that odd gaze of his. It was almost indefinable, both timid and ferocious, and produced an almost painful impression until one grew accustomed to it. I hurriedly began to read to escape it.
"THE THREE SONS OF BOUDRYS.
"In the courtyard of his castle old Boudrys called together his three sons—three genuine Lithuanians like himself.
"'My children,' he said to them, 'feed your war horses, and get ready your saddles; sharpen your swords and your javelins. It is said that at Wilno war has broken out between the three quarters of the globe. Olgerd will march against Russia; Skirghello against our neighbours, the Poles; Keystut will fall upon the Teutons. You are young, strong and bold; go and fight; and may the gods of Lithuania protect you! This year I shall not go to war, but I wish to counsel you. There are three of you, and three roads are open to you.
"'One of you must accompany Olgerd to Russia, to the borders of Lake Ilmen, under the walls of Novgorod. Ermine skins and embroidered stuffs you will find there in plenty, and among the merchants as many roubles as there are blocks of ice in the river.
"'The second must follow Keystut in his incursion. May he scatter the cross-bearing rabble! Amber is there as common as is the sea sand; their cloths are without equal for sheen and colour; their priests' vestments are ornamented with rubies.
"'The third shall cross the Niémen with Skirghello. On the other side he will find base implements of toil. He must choose good lances and strong buckles to oppose them, and he will bear away a daughter-in-law.
"'The women of Poland, my sons, are the most beautiful of all our captives—sportive as kittens and as white as cream. Under their black brows their eyes sparkle like stars. When I was young, half a century ago, I brought away captive from Poland a beautiful girl who became my wife. She has long been dead, but I can never look at her side of the hearth without remembering her.'
"He blessed the youths, who already were armed and in the saddle. They set out. Autumn came, then winter ... but they did not come back, and the old Boudrys believed them to be dead.
"There came a snowstorm, and a horseman drew near, who bore under his black bourka a precious burden.
"'Is it a sackful of roubles from Novgorod?' asked Boudrys.
"'No, father. I am bringing you a daughter-in-law from Poland.'
"In the midst of the snowstorm another horseman appeared. His bourka was also distended with a precious burden.
"'What have you, my child; yellow amber from Germany?'
"'No, father. I bring you a daughter-in-law from Poland.'
"The snow fell in squalls. A horseman advanced hiding a precious burden under his bourka.... But before he had shown his spoil Boudrys had invited his friends to a third wedding."
"Bravo! Professor," cried the Count; "you pronounce Jmoude to perfection. But who told you this pretty daïna?"
"A young lady whose acquaintance I had the honour to make at Wilno, at the house of Princess Katazyna Paç."
"What is her name?"
"The panna Iwinska."
"Mlle. Ioulka!" exclaimed the Count. "The little madcap! I might have guessed it. My dear Professor, you know Jmoude and all the learned tongues; you have read every old book, but you have let yourself be taken in by a young girl who has only read novels. She has translated to you, more or less correctly, in Jmoudic, one of Miçkiewicz's dainty ballads, which you have not read because it is no older than I am. If you wish it I will show it to you in Polish, or, if you prefer, in an excellent Russian translation by Pouchkine."
I confess I was quite dumbfounded. How the Dorpat professor would have chuckled if I had published as original the daïna of the "Sons of Boudrys"!
Instead of being amused at my confusion, the Count, with exquisite politeness, hastened to turn the conversation.
"So you have met Mlle. Ioulka?" said he.
"I have had the honour of being presented to her."
"What do you think of her? Speak quite frankly."
"She is a most agreeable young lady."
"So you are pleased to say."
"She is exceedingly pretty."
"Do you not think she has the loveliest eyes in the world?"
"A complexion of the most dazzling whiteness?... I was reminded of a Persian ghazel, wherein a lover extols the fineness of his mistress's skin. 'When she drinks red wine,' he said, 'you see it pass down her throat.' The panna Iwinska made me think of those Persian lines."
"Mlle. Ioulka may possibly embody that phenomenon; but I do not know if she has any blood in her veins.... She has no heart.... She is as white and as cold as snow!"
He rose and walked round the room some time without speaking, as though to hide his emotion; then, stopping suddenly—
"Pardon me," he said, "we were talking, I believe, of folk-poetry...."
"We were, Your Excellency."
"After all it must be admitted that she translated Miçkiewicz very prettily.... 'Frolicsome as a kitten,... white as cream,... eyes like stars,' ... that is her own portrait, do you not agree?"
"Absolutely, Your Excellency."
"With reference to this roguish trick ... a very ill-judged one, to be sure,... the poor child is bored to death by an old aunt. She leads the life of a nun."
"At Wilno she went into society. I saw her at the ball given by the officers of the—regiment."
"Ah, yes! the society of young officers suits her exactly. To laugh with one, to backbite with another, and to flirt with all of them.... Will you come and see my father's library, Professor?"
I followed him to a long gallery, lined with many handsomely bound books, which, to judge from the dust which covered their edges, were rarely opened. What was my delight to find that one of the first volumes I pulled out of a glass case was the Catechismus Samogiticus! I could not help uttering a cry of pleasure. It seemed as though some mysterious power were exerting its influence unknown to us.... The Count took the book, and, after he had turned over the leaves carelessly, wrote on the fly-leaf: "To Professor Wittembach, from Michael Szémioth." I did not know how to express my great gratitude, and I made a mental resolution that after my death this precious book should be the ornament of my own University library.
"If you like to consider this library your workroom," said the Count, "you shall never be disturbed here."
After breakfast the following day the Count proposed that I should take a walk with him. The object in view was to visit a kapas (the name given by the Lithuanians to tumuli, called by the Russians kourgâne), a very noted one in that country, because formerly poets and magicians (they are one and the same thing) gathered there on certain special occasions.
"I have a very quiet horse to offer you," he said. "I regret that I cannot take you by carriage, but, upon my word, the road we go by is not fit for carriages."
I would rather have stopped in the library taking my notes, but I could not express any wish contrary to that of my generous host, and I accepted. The horses were waiting for us at the foot of the steps in the courtyard, where a groom held a dog in leash.
"Do you know much about dogs, Professor?" said the Count, stopping for a minute and turning to me.
"Hardly anything, Your Excellency."
"The Staroste of Zorany, where I have property, sent me this spaniel, of which he thinks highly. Allow me to show him to you." He called to the groom, who came up with the dog. He was indeed a beautiful creature. The dog was quite used to the man, and leapt joyfully and seemed full of life; but when within a few yards of the Count he put his tail between his legs and hung back terrified. The Count patted him, and at this the dog set up a dismal howl.
"I think he will turn out a good dog with careful training," he said, after having examined him for some time with the eye of a connoisseur. Then he mounted his horse.
"Professor," he said, "when we were in the avenue leading from the château, you saw that dog's fear. Please give me your honest opinion. In your capacity of savant you must learn to solve enigmas.... Why should animals be afraid of me?"
"Really, Your Excellency does me the honour of taking me for an Œdipus, whilst I am only a simple professor of comparative philology. There might—"
"Observe," he interrupted me, "that I never beat either horses or dogs. I have a scruple against whipping a poor beast who commits a mistake through ignorance. But, nevertheless, you can hardly conceive the aversion that I inspire in dogs and horses. It takes me double the time and trouble to accustom them to me that it would other people. It took me a long time before I could subdue the horse you are riding, but now he is as quiet as a lamb."
"I believe, Your Excellency, that animals are physiognomists, and detect at once if people whom they see for the first time like them or not. I expect you only like animals for the services they render you; on the other hand, many people have an instinctive partiality for certain beasts, and they find it out at once. Now I, for instance, have always had an instinctive liking for cats. They very rarely run away from me when I try to stroke them, and I have never been scratched by one."
"That is very likely," said the Count; "I cannot say I have a real affection for animals.... Human beings are so much more to be preferred. We are now coming into a forest, Professor, where the kingdom of beasts still flourishes—the matecznik, the womb, the great nursery of beasts. Yes, according to our national traditions, no one has yet penetrated its depths, no one has been able to reach to the heart of these woods and thickets, unless, always excepted, the poets and magicians have, who go everywhere. Here the beasts all live as in a Republic ... or under a Constitutional Government, I cannot tell which of the two. Lions, bears, elks, the joubrs, our wild oxen or aurochs, all live very happily together. The mammoth, which is preserved there, is thought highly of; it is, I believe, the Marshal of the Diet. They have a very strict police force, and if they decide that any beast is vicious they sentence him to banishment. It falls thus out of the frying-pan into the fire; it is obliged to venture into the region of man, and few escape."
"A very curious legend," I exclaimed, "but, Your Excellency, you speak of the aurochs, that noble animal which Cæsar has described in his Commentaries, and which the Merovingian kings hunted in the forest of Compiègne. I am told they still exist in Lithuania—is that so?"
"Certainly. My father himself killed a joubr, having obtained permission from the Government. You can see the head in the large dining-hall. I have never seen one. I believe they are very scarce. To make amends we have wolves and bears here in abundance. To guard against a possible encounter with one of these gentlemen I have brought this instrument" (and he produced a Circassian tchékhole which he carried in his belt), "and my groom carries in his saddle-box a double-barrelled rifle."
We began to penetrate into the forest. Soon the narrow track that we were following disappeared altogether. Every few moments we were obliged to ride round enormous trees whose low branches barred our passage. Several of these, which were dead of old age and fallen over, looked like bulwarks crowned with a line of chevaux-de-frise (impossible to scale). Elsewhere we encountered deep pools covered with water lilies and duckweed. Further on we came to a clearing where the grass shone like emeralds; but woe to those who ventured on it, for this rich and deceptive vegetation usually hides abysses of mud in which both horse and rider would disappear for ever.... The arduousness of the route had interrupted our conversation. All my attention was taken up in following the Count, and I admired the imperturbable sagacity with which he guided his way without a compass, and always regained the right direction which had to be followed to reach the kapas. It was evident that he had frequently hunted in these wild forests.
At last we perceived the tumulus in the centre of a large clearing. It was very high and surrounded by a fosse still clearly recognisable in spite of the landslips. It looked as though it had recently been excavated. At the summit I noticed the remains of an erection built of stones, some of which bore traces of fire. A considerable quantity of ashes, mixed with pieces of charcoal, with here and there fragments of coarse crockery, attested that there had been a fire on the top of the tumulus for a considerable time. If one can put faith in popular tradition, human sacrifices had been offered several times in the kapas; but there is hardly any extinct religion to which these abominable rites have not been attributed, and I imagine one could justify a similar theory with regard to the ancient Lithuanians from historic evidence.
We came down from the tumulus to rejoin our horses, which we had left on the far side of the fosse, when we saw an old woman approaching us, leaning on a stick and holding a basket in her hand.
"Good day, gentlemen," she said to us as she came up, "I ask an alms for the love of God. Give me something for a glass of brandy to warm my poor body."
The Count threw her a coin, and asked what she was doing in the wood, so far from habitation. For sole answer she showed him her basket filled with mushrooms. Although my knowledge of botany was but limited, I thought several of the mushrooms looked like poisonous ones.
"My good woman," I said, "you are not going to eat those, I hope."
"Sir," the old woman replied, with a sad smile, "poor folk eat all the good God gives them."
"You are not acquainted with Lithuanian stomachs," the Count put in; "they are lined with sheet iron. Our peasants eat every kind of fungus they find, and are none the worse for them."
"At least prevent her from tasting the agaricus necator she has in her basket," I cried, and I stretched out my hand to take one of the most poisonous of the mushrooms, but the old woman quickly withdrew the basket.
"Take care," she said in a frightened tone; "they are protected ... Pirkuns! Pirkuns!"
"Pirkuns," I may explain in passing, is the Samogitian name for the divinity called by the Russians Péroune; it is the Jupiter tonans of the Slavs. If I was surprised when I heard the old woman invoke a pagan god, I was much more astonished to see the mushrooms heave up. The black head of a snake raised itself at least a foot out of the basket. I jumped back, and the Count spat over his shoulder after the superstitious custom of the Slavs, who believe that in this way they turn away misfortune, as did the ancient Romans. The old woman put the basket on the ground, and crouched by its side; then she held out her hand towards the snake, pronouncing some unintelligible words like an incantation. The snake remained quiet a moment, then it curled itself round the shrivelled arm of the old woman and disappeared in the sleeve of her sheepskin cloak, which, with a dirty chemise, comprised, I believe, all the dress of this Lithuanian Circe. The old woman looked at us with a little laugh of triumph, like a conjurer who has just executed a difficult trick. Her face wore that mixture of cunning and stupidity which is often noticeable in would-be witches, who are mostly scoundrels and dupes.
"Here you have," said the Count in German, "a specimen of local colour; a witch who tames snakes, at the foot of a kapas, in the presence of a learned professor and of an ignorant Lithuanian gentleman. It would make a capital subject for a picture of natural life by your countryman Knauss.... If you wish to have your fortune told, this is a good opportunity."
I replied that I did not encourage such practices.
"I would much rather," I added, "ask her if she knows anything about that curious superstition of which you spoke. Good woman," I said to her, "have you heard tell of a part of this forest where the beasts live in a community, independent of man's rule?"
The witch nodded her head in the affirmative, and she gave a low laugh, half silly, half malicious.
"I come from it," she said. "The beasts have lost their king. Noble, the lion, is dead; the animals are about to elect another king. If you go there perhaps they will make you king."
"What are you saying, mother?" and the Count burst into shouts of laughter. "Do you know to whom you are talking? Do you not know that this gentleman is.... (what the deuce do they call a professor in Jmoudic?) a great savant, a sage, a waïdelote?"
The witch stared at him fixedly.
"I was mistaken," she said. "It is thou who ought to go there. Thou wilt be their king, not he; thou art tall, and strong, and hast claws and teeth."
"What do you think of the epigrams she levels at us?" said the Count. "Can you show us the way, mother?" he asked.
She pointed with her hand to a part of the forest.
"Indeed?" said the Count. "And how can you get across the marsh? You must know, Professor, that she pointed to an impassable swamp, a lake of liquid mud covered over with green grass. Last year a stag that I wounded plunged into this infernal marsh, and I watched him sink slowly, slowly.... In five minutes I saw only his horns, and soon he disappeared completely, two of my dogs with him."
"But I am not heavy," said the old woman, chuckling.
"I think you could cross the marsh easily on a broomstick."
A flash of anger shone in the old woman's eyes.
"Sir," she said, returning to the drawling and nasal twang of the beggar, "haven't you a pipe of tobacco to give a poor woman? Thou hadst better search for a passage through the swamp than go to Dowghielly," she added in a lower tone.
"Dowghielly!" said the Count, reddening, "what do you mean?"
I could not help noticing that this word produced a singular effect upon him. He was visibly embarrassed; he lowered his head in order to hide his confusion, and busied himself over opening the tobacco pouch which hung at the hilt of his hunting knife.
"No, do not go to Dowghielly," repeated the old woman. "The little white dove is not for thee, is she, Pirkuns?"
At that moment the snake's head appeared out of the collar of the old woman's cloak and stretched up to its mistress's ear. The reptile, trained doubtless to the trick, moved its jaws as though it spoke.
"He says I am right," said the old woman.
The Count gave her a handful of tobacco.
"Do you know me?" he asked.
"I am the master of Médintiltas. Come and see me one of these days; I will give you tobacco and brandy."
The old woman kissed his hand and moved away with rapid strides. We soon lost sight of her. The Count remained thoughtful, tying and untying the fastenings of his bag, hardly conscious of what he was doing.
"Professor," he said to me after a somewhat long silence, "you will laugh at me. That old crone knew both me and the road which she showed me better than she pretended.... After all, there is nothing so very surprising in that. I am as well known in this countryside as the white wolf. The jade has seen me several times on the road to Dowghielly Castle.... A marriageable young lady lives there, so she concluded that I was in love.... Then some handsome boy has bribed her to tell me bad luck.... It is obvious enough. Nevertheless, ... in spite of myself, her words have affected me. I am almost frightened by them.... You have cause to laugh.... The truth is that I intended to go and ask for dinner at the Castle of Dowghielly, and now I hesitate.... I am a great fool. Come, Professor, you decide it. Shall we go?"
"In questions of marriage I never give advice," I said laughingly. "I take good care not to have an opinion."
We had come back to our horses.
"The horse shall choose for me," cried the Count, as he vaulted into the saddle and let the bridle lie slack.
The horse did not hesitate; he immediately entered a little footpath, which, after several turnings, descended into a metalled road which led to Dowghielly. Half an hour after we reached the Castle steps.
At the sound of our horses a pretty, fair head appeared at a window, framed between two curtains. I recognised the translator of Miçkiewicz, who had taken me in.
"You are welcome," she said. "You could not have come more apropos, Count Szémioth. A dress from Paris has just arrived for me. I shall be lovely past recognition."
The curtains closed again.
"It is certainly not for me that she is putting on this dress for the first time," muttered the Count between his teeth whilst mounting the steps.
He introduced me to Madam Dowghiello, the aunt of the panna Iwinska, who received me courteously and spoke to me of my last articles in the Kœnigsberg Scientific and Literary Gazette.
"The Professor has come to complain to you," said the Count, "of the malicious trick which Mademoiselle Julienne played on him."
"She is a child, Professor; you must forgive her. She often drives me to distraction with her follies. I had more sense at sixteen than she has at twenty, but she is a good girl at heart, and she has many good qualities. She is an admirable musician, she paints flowers exquisitely, and she speaks French, German and Italian equally well.... She embroiders."
"And she composes Jmoudic verses," added the Count, laughing.
"She is incapable of it," exclaimed Madam Dowghiello; and they had to explain her niece's mischievousness.
Madam Dowghiello was well educated, and knew the antiquities of her country. Her conversation was particularly agreeable to me. She read many of our German reviews, and held very sane views upon philology. I admit that I did not notice the time that Mademoiselle Iwinska took to dress, but it seemed long to Count Szémioth, who got up and sat down again, looked out of the window, and drummed on the pane with his fingers as a man who has lost patience.
At length, at the end of three-quarters of an hour, Mademoiselle Julienne appeared, wearing with exquisite grace a dress which would require more critical knowledge than mine to describe. She was followed by her French governess.
"Do I not look pretty?" she said to the Count, turning round slowly so that he could see her from all sides.
She did not look either at the Count or at me, but at her new dress.
"How is it, Ioulka," said Madam Dowghiello, "that you do not say good day to the Professor? He complains of you."
"Ah, Professor!" she cried, with a charming little pout. "What have I done? Have you come to make me do penance?"
"We shall punish ourselves, Mademoiselle, if we deprive ourselves of your presence," I answered. "I am far from complaining; on the contrary, I congratulate myself on having learnt, thanks to you, that the Lithuanian Muse has reappeared more brightly than ever."
She lowered her head, and, putting her hands before her face, taking care not to disarrange her hair, she said, in the tones of a child who has just stolen some sweetmeats—
"Forgive me; I will not do it again."
"I will only pardon you, my dear Pani," I said to her, "if you will fulfil a certain promise which you were good enough to make to me at Wilmo, at the house of the Princess Katazyna Paç."
"What promise?" she asked, raising her head and laughing.
"Have you forgotten so soon? You promised me that if we met in Samogitia you would let me see a certain country dance which you said was enchanting."
"Oh, the roussalka! I shall be charmed; and the very man I need is here."
She ran to a table loaded with music-books, and, turning over one hastily, put it on the piano stand.
"Mind, my dear, allegro presto," she said, addressing her governess. And she played the prelude herself, without sitting down, to show the time.
"Come here, Count Michel! you are too much of a Lithuanian not to be able to dance the roussalka; ... but dance like a peasant, you understand."
Madam Dowghiello in vain tried to object. The Count and I insisted. He had his motives, for his part in the dance was extremely agreeable, as we soon saw. The governess, after several attempts, said she thought she could play that kind of waltz, strange though it was; so Mademoiselle Iwinska, after moving some chairs and a table that were in the way, took hold of her partner by the collar of his coat and led him into the centre of the room.
"You must know, Professor, that I am a roussalka, at your service."
She made a low bow.
"A roussalka is a water nymph. There is one in each of the big pools of black water which adorn our forests. Do not go near! The roussalka comes out, lovelier even than I, if that be possible; she carries you to the bottom, where, very likely, she gobbles you up...."
"A real siren," I cried.
"He," continued Mademoiselle Iwinska, pointing to Count Szémioth, "is a very foolish young fisherman who exposes himself to my clutches, and, to make the pleasure last longer, I fascinate him by dancing round him for a time.... But, alas! to do it properly I want a sarafane. What a pity! You must please excuse this dress, which has neither character nor local colour.... Oh! and I have slippers on. It is quite impossible to dance the roussalka with slippers on ... and heels on them too."
She picked up her dress, and, daintily shaking a pretty little foot at the risk of showing her leg, she sent the slipper flying to the end of the drawing-room. The other followed the first, and she stood upon the parquetry floor in her silken stockings.
"We are quite ready," she said to the governess.
And the dance began.
The roussalka revolves and revolves round her partner; he stretches out his arms to seize her, but she slips underneath him and escapes. It is very graceful, and the music has movement and originality. The figure ends when the partner, believing that he has seized the roussalka, tries to give her a kiss, and she makes a bound, strikes him on the shoulder, and he falls dead at her feet.... But the Count improvised a variation, strained the winsome creature in his arms, and kissed her again and again. Mademoiselle Iwinska uttered a little cry, blushed deeply, and threw herself, pouting, into a couch, complaining that he had hugged her like the bear that he was. I saw that the comparison did not please the Count, for it brought to his mind the family misfortune, and his brow darkened. I thanked Mademoiselle Iwinska most warmly, and praised her dance, which seemed to me to have an antique flavour, and recalled the sacred dances of the Greeks. I was interrupted by a servant announcing General and Princess Véliaminof. Mademoiselle Iwinska leaped to the sofa for her shoes, hastily thrust in her little feet, and ran to meet the Princess, making successively two profound bows. I noticed that at each bow she adroitly drew on part of her slipper. The General brought with him two aides-de-camp, and, like us, had come to ask for hospitality. In any other country I imagine the mistress of the house would have been a little embarrassed to receive all at once six hungry and unexpected guests; but Lithuanian hospitality is so lavish that the dinner was not more than half an hour late, I think; there were too many pies, however, both hot and cold.
 "The two together make a pair"; word for word, Michon (Michael) with Lokis, both are the same. Michaelium cum Lokide, ambo [duo] ipsissimi.
 The Russian for one possessed is "a howler"; klikoucha, the root of which is klik, clamour, howling.
 Siatelstvo, "Your shining light"; the title used in addressing a count.
 The knights of the Teutonic order.
 Felt cloak.
 See Messire Thaddée, by Miçkiewicz, and Captive Poland, by M. Charles Edmond.
 A Circassian gun-case.
 A bad translation of the word "professor." The waïdelotes were the Lithuanian bards.
 A peasant's skirt, without a bodice.
The dinner was very lively. The General gave us a most interesting account of the dialects spoken in the Caucasus, some of which are Aryan, and others Turanian, although between the different peoples there is a remarkable uniformity in manners and customs. I had to talk of my travels because Count Szémioth congratulated me on the way I sat a horse, and said he had never met a minister or a professor who could have managed so easily such a journey as the one we had taken. I explained to him that, commissioned by the Bible Society to write a work on the language of the Charruas, I had spent three and a half years in the Republic of Uruguay, nearly always on horse-back, and living in the pampas among the Indians. This led me to relate how, when lost for three days in those boundless plains, without food or water, I had been reduced, like the gauchos who accompanied me, to bleed my horse and drink his blood.
All the ladies uttered a cry of horror. The General observed that the Kalmouks did the same in similar extremities. The Count asked me what the drink tasted like.
"Morally, it was most repugnant," I replied, "but, physically, I found it rather good, and it is owing to it that I have the honour of dining here to-day. Many Europeans, I mean white men, who have lived for a long time with the Indians, accustom themselves to it, and even get to like the taste. My good friend Don Fructuoso Rivero, President of the Republic, hardly ever missed a chance of gratifying it. I recollect one day, when he was going to Congress in full uniform, he passed a rancho where a young foal was being bled. He got off his horse to ask for a chupon, a suck; after which he delivered one of his most eloquent speeches."
"Your President is a hideous monster," cried Mademoiselle Iwinska.
"Pardon me, my dear Pani," I said to her, "he is a very distinguished person, with a most enlightened mind. He speaks several very difficult Indian dialects to perfection, specially the Charrua, the verbs of which take innumerable forms, according to whether its objective is direct or indirect, and even according to the social relations of the persons who speak."
I was about to give some very curious instances of the construction of the Charrua verb, but the Count interrupted me to ask what part of the horse they bled when they wanted to drink its blood.
"For goodness' sake, my dear Professor," cried Mademoiselle Iwinska, with a comic expression of terror, "do not tell him. He is just the man to slay his whole stable, and to eat us up ourselves when he has no more horses left!"
Upon this sally the ladies laughingly left the table to prepare tea and coffee whilst we smoked. In a quarter of an hour they sent from the drawing-room for the General. We all prepared to go with him; but we were told that the ladies only wished one man at a time. Very soon we heard from the drawing-room loud bursts of laughter and clapping of hands.
"Mademoiselle Ioulka is up to her pranks," said the Count.
He was sent for next; and again there followed laughter and applause. It was my turn after his. By the time I had reached the room every face had taken on a pretended gravity which did not bode well. I expected some trick.
"Professor," said the General to me in his most official manner, "these ladies maintain that we have given too kind a reception to their champagne, and they will not admit us among them until after a test. You must walk from the middle of the room to that wall with your eyes bandaged, and touch it with your finger. You see how easy it is; you have only to walk straight. Are you able to keep a straight line?"
"I think so, General."
Mademoiselle Iwinska then threw a handkerchief over my eyes and tied it tightly behind.
"You are in the middle of the room," she said; "stretch out your hand.... That is right! I wager that you will not touch the wall."
"Forward, march!" called out the General.
There were only five or six steps to take. I advanced very cautiously, sure that I should encounter some cord or footstool treacherously placed in my path to trip me up, and I could hear stifled laughter, which increased my confusion. At length I believed I was quite close to the wall, when my outstretched finger suddenly went into something cold and sticky. I made a grimace and started back, which set all the onlookers laughing. I tore off my bandage, and saw Mademoiselle Iwinska standing near me holding a pot of honey, into which I had thrust my finger, thinking that I touched the wall. My only consolation was to watch the two aides-de-camp pass through the same ordeal, with no better result than I.
Throughout the evening Mademoiselle Iwinska never ceased to give vent to her frolicsome humour. Ever teasing, ever mischievous, she made first one, then another, the butt of her fun. I observed, however, that she more frequently addressed herself to the Count, who, I must say, never took offence, and even seemed to enjoy her allurements. But when, on the other hand, she began an attack upon one of the aides-de-camp, he frowned, and I saw his eyes kindle with that dull fire which was almost terrifying. "Frolicsome as a kitten and as white as cream." I thought in writing that verse Miçkiewicz must surely have wished to draw the portrait of the panna Iwinska.
It was very late before we retired to bed. In many of the great houses in Lithuania there is plenty of splendid silver plate, fine furniture, and valuable Persian carpets; but they have not, as in our dear Germany, comfortable feather beds to offer the tired guest. Rich or poor, nobleman or peasant, a Slav can sleep quite soundly on a board. The Castle of Dowghielly was no exception to this general rule. In the room to which the Count and I were conducted there were but two couches newly covered with morocco leather. This did not distress me much, as I had often slept on the bare earth in my travels, and I laughed a little at the Count's exclamations upon the barbarous customs of his compatriots. A servant came to take off our boots and to bring us dressing-gowns and slippers. When the Count had taken off his coat, he walked up and down awhile in silence; then he stopped in front of the couch, upon which I had already stretched myself.
"What do you think of Ioulka?" he said.
"I think she is bewitching."
"Yes, but such a flirt!... Do you believe she has any liking for that fair-haired little captain?"
"The aide-de-camp?... How should I tell?"
"He is a fop!... So he ought to please women."
"I deny your conclusion, Count. Do you wish me to tell you the truth? Mademoiselle Iwinska thinks far more how to please Count Szémioth than to please all the aides-de-camp in the army."
He blushed without replying; but I saw that my words had given him great pleasure. He walked about again for some time without speaking; then, after looking at his watch, he said—
"Good gracious! we must really go to sleep; it is very late."
He took his rifle and his hunting knife, which had been placed in our room, put them in a cupboard, and took out the key.
"Will you keep it?" he said; and to my great surprise he gave it to me. "I might forget it. You certainly have a better memory than I have."
"The best way not to forget your weapons would be to place them on that table near your sofa," I said.
"No.... Look here, to tell you the truth, I do not like to have arms by me when I am asleep.... This is the reason. When I was in the Grodno Hussars, I slept one night in a room with a companion, and my pistols were on the chair near me. In the night I was awakened by a report. I had a pistol in my hand; I had fired, and the bullet had passed within two inches of my comrade's head.... I have never been able to remember the dream I had."
I was a little disturbed by his anecdote. I was guarded against having a bullet through my head; but, when I looked at the tall figure of my companion, with his herculean shoulders and his muscular arms covered with black down, I could not help recognising that he was perfectly able to strangle me with his hands if he had a bad dream. I took care, however, not to let him see that I felt the slightest uneasiness. I merely put a light on a chair close to my couch, and began to read the Catechism of Lawiçki, which I had brought with me. The Count wished me good night, and lay down on his sofa, upon which he turned over five or six times; at last he seemed asleep, although he was doubled up like Horace's lover, who, shut up in a chest, touched his head with his bent knees.
" ...Turpi clausus in area,
Contractum genibus tangas caput...."
Contractum genibus tangas caput...."
From time to time he sighed heavily, or made a kind of nervous rattle, which I attributed to the peculiar position in which he had chosen to sleep. An hour perhaps passed in this way, and I myself became drowsy. I shut my book, and settled myself as comfortably as was possible on my bed, when an odd giggling sound from my neighbour set me trembling. I looked at the Count. His eyes were shut; his whole body shuddered; from his half-opened lips escaped some hardly articulate words.
"So fresh!... so white!... The Professor did not know what he said.... Horse is not worth a straw.... What a delicious morsel!"
Then he began to bite the cushion, on which his head rested, with all his might, growling at the same time so loudly that he woke himself.
I remained quite still on my couch, and pretended to be asleep. Nevertheless, I watched him. He sat up, rubbed his eyes, sighed sadly, and remained for nearly an hour without changing his position, absorbed apparently in his reflections. I was, however, very ill at ease, and I inwardly vowed never again to sleep by the side of the Count. But in the long run weariness overcame disquiet, and when the servant came to our room in the morning, we were both in a profound sleep.
We returned to Médintiltas after breakfast. When I found Dr. Frœber alone, I told him that I believed the Count was unwell, that he had had frightful dreams, was possibly a somnambulist and would be dangerous in that condition.
"I am aware of all that," said the doctor. "With an athletic organisation he is at the same time as nervous as a highly strung woman. Perhaps he gets it from his mother.... She has been devilishly bad to-day.... I do not believe much in stories of fright and longings of pregnant women; but one thing is certain, the Countess is mad, and madness can be inherited...."
"But the Count," I returned, "is perfectly sane: his mind is sound, he has much higher intelligence than, I admit, I should have expected; he loves reading...."
"I grant it, my dear sir, I grant it; but he is often eccentric. Sometimes he shuts himself up for several days; often he roams about at night. He reads unheard-of books.... German metaphysics ... physiology, and I know not what! Even yesterday a package of them came from Leipzig. Must I speak plainly? A Hercules needs a Hebe. There are some very pretty peasant girls here.... On Saturday evenings, when they have washed, you might mistake them for princesses.... There is not one of them but would be only too proud to distract my lord. I, at his age, devil take me!... No, he has no mistress; he will not marry, it is wrong. He ought to have something to occupy his mind."
The doctor's coarse materialism shocked me extremely, and I abruptly terminated the conversation by saying that I sincerely wished that Count Szémioth should find a wife worthy of him. I was surprised, I must admit, when I learnt from the doctor of the Count's taste for philosophical studies. It went against all my preconceived ideas that this officer of the Hussars, this ardent sportsman, should read German metaphysics and engage himself in physiology. The doctor spoke the truth, however, as I had proof thereof even that very day.
"How do you explain, Professor," he said to me suddenly towards the close of dinner—"how do you explain the duality or the twofold nature of our being?"
And when he observed that I did not quite follow him, he went on—
"Have you never found yourself at the top of a tower, or even at the edge of a precipice, having at the same time a desire to throw yourself down into space, and a feeling of terror absolutely the reverse?"
"That can be explained on purely physical grounds," said the doctor; "first, the fatigue of walking up hill sends a rush of blood to the brain, which—"
"Let us leave aside the question of the blood, doctor," broke in the Count impatiently, "and take another instance. You hold a loaded firearm. Your best friend stands by. The idea occurs to you to put a ball through his head. You hold assassination in the greatest horror, but all the same, you have thought of it. I believe, gentlemen, that if all the thoughts which come into our heads in the course of an hour ... I believe that if all your thoughts, Professor, whom I hold to be so wise, were written down, they would form a folio volume probably, after the perusal of which there would not be a single lawyer who could successfully defend you, nor a judge who would not either put you in prison or even in a lunatic asylum."
"That judge, Count, would certainly not condemn me for having hunted, for more than an hour this morning, for the mysterious law that decides which Slavonic verbs take a future tense when joined to a preposition; but if by chance I had some other thought, what proof of it could you bring against me? I am no more master of my thoughts than of the external accidents which suggest them to me. Because a thought springs up in my mind, it cannot be implied that I have put it into execution, or even resolved to do so. I have never thought of killing anybody; but, if the thought of a murder comes into my mind, is not my reason there to drive it away?"
"You talk with great certainty of your reason; but is it always with us, as you say, to guide us? Reflection, that is to say, time and coolness are necessary to make the reason speak and be obeyed. Has one always both of these? In battle I see a bullet coming towards me; it rebounds, and I get out of the way; by so doing I expose my friend, for whose life I would have given my own if I had had time for reflection...."
I tried to point out to him our duty as men and Christians, the obligation we are under to imitate the warrior of the Scriptures, always ready for battle; at length I made him see that in constantly struggling against our passions we gain fresh strength to weaken and to overcome them. I only succeeded, I fear, in reducing him to silence, and he did not seem convinced.
I stayed but ten days longer at the Castle. I paid one more visit to Dowghielly, but we did not sleep there. As on the first occasion, Mlle. Iwinska acted like a frolicsome and spoilt child. She exercised a kind of fascination over the Count, and I did not doubt that he was very much in love with her. At the same time he knew her faults thoroughly, and was under no illusions. He knew she was a frivolous coquette, and indifferent to all that did not afford her amusement. I could see that he often suffered internally at seeing her so unreasonable; but as soon as she paid him some little attention his face shone, and he beamed with joy, forgetful of all else. He wished to take me to Dowghielly for the last time the day before my departure, possibly because whilst I could stay talking with the aunt, he could walk in the garden with the niece; but I had so much work to do I was obliged to excuse myself, however much he urged. He returned to dinner, although he had told us not to wait. He came to table, but could not eat. He was gloomy and ill-tempered all through the meal. From time to time his eyebrows contracted and his eyes assumed a sinister expression. When the doctor returned to the Countess, the Count followed me to my room, and told me all that was on his mind.
"I heartily repent," he exclaimed, "having left you to go and see that little fool who makes game of me, and only cares for fresh faces; but, fortunately, all is over between us; I am utterly disgusted, and I will never see her again...."
For some time he paced up and down according to his usual habit.
"You thought, perhaps, I was in love with her?" he went on. "That is what the silly doctor thinks. No, I have never loved her. Her merry look amused me. Her white skin gave me pleasure to look at.... That is all there is pleasing about her,... her complexion especially. She has no brains. I have never seen anything in her but just a pretty doll, agreeable to look at when one is tired and lacks a new book.... There is no doubt she is beautiful.... Her skin is marvellous!... The blood under that skin ought to be better than a horse's.... Do you not think so, Professor?"
And he laughed aloud, but his laugh was not pleasant to hear.
I said good-bye to him the next day, to continue my explorations in the north of the Palatinate.
They lasted nearly two months, and I can say that there is hardly a village in Samogitia where I did not stop and where I did not collect some documents. I may here be allowed, perhaps, to take this opportunity of thanking the inhabitants of that province, and especially the Church dignitaries, for the truly warm co-operation they accorded me in my researches, and the excellent contributions with which they have enriched my dictionary.
After staying a week at Szawlé, I intended to embark at Klaypeda (the seaport which we call Memel) to return to my home, when I received the following letter from Count Szémioth, which was brought by one of his huntsmen:—
"MY DEAR PROFESSOR,—Allow me to write to you in German, for I should commit too many errors in grammar if I wrote in Jmoudic, and you would lose all respect for me. I am not sure you have much of that as it is, and the news that I am about to communicate to you will probably not increase it. Without more ado, I am going to be married, and you will guess to whom. Jove laughs at lovers' vows. So said Pirkuns, our Samogitian Jupiter. It is, then, Mlle. Julienne Iwinska that I am to marry on the 8th of next month. You will be the kindest of men if you will come and assist at the ceremony. All the peasantry of Médintiltas and the neighbouring districts will come to devour several oxen and countless swine, and, when they are drunk, they will dance in the meadow, which, you will remember, lies on the right of the avenue. You will see costumes and customs worthy of your consideration. It will give me and also Julienne the greatest pleasure if you come, and I must add that your refusal would place us in a most awkward situation. You know that I belong to the Evangelical Communion, as does my betrothed; now, our minister, who lives about thirty leagues away, is crippled with gout, and I ventured to hope you would be so good as to act in his stead.
"Believe me, my dear Professor,
"Yours very devotedly,
"Yours very devotedly,
At the end of the letter, in the form of a postscript, had been added in Jmoudic, in a pretty feminine handwriting:
"I, the muse of Lithuania, write in Jmoudic. Michel is very impertinent to question your approval. There is no one but I, indeed, who would be so silly as to marry such a fellow as he. You will see, Professor, on the 8th of next month, a bride who may be called chic. That is not a Jmoudic word, it is French. But please do not be distracted during the ceremony."
Neither the letter nor the postscript pleased me. I thought the engaged couple showed an inexcusable levity concerning such a solemn occasion. However, how was I to decline? And yet I will admit that the promised pageant had its attractions for me. According to all appearance, I should not fail to find among the great number of gentlefolk, who would be gathered together at the Castle of Médintiltas, some learned people who would furnish me with useful information. My Jmoudic glossary was very good; but the sense of a certain number of words which I had learnt from the lips of the lowest of the peasants was still, relatively speaking, somewhat obscure to me. All these considerations combined were sufficiently strong to make me consent to the Count's request, and I replied that I would be at Médintiltas by the morning of the 8th.
How greatly had I occasion to repent of my decision!
On entering the avenue which led to the Castle I saw a great number of ladies and gentlemen in morning dress standing in groups on the steps of the entrance or walking about the paths of the park. The court was filled with peasants in their Sunday attire. The Castle bore a festive air; everywhere were flowers and wreaths, flags and festoons. The head servant led me to the room on the ground floor which had been assigned to me, apologising for not being able to offer me a better one; but there were so many visitors in the Castle that it had been impossible to reserve me the room I had occupied during my first visit, which had been given to the wife of the premier Marshal. My new chamber was, however, very comfortable; it looked on the park, and was below the Count's apartment. I dressed myself hastily for the ceremony, and put on my surplice, but neither the Count nor his betrothed made their appearance. The Count had gone to fetch her from Dowghielly. They should have come back a long time before this; but a bride's toilette is not a light business, and the doctor had warned the guests that as the breakfast would not take place till after the religious ceremony, those whose appetites were impatient would do well to fortify themselves at a sideboard, which was spread with cakes and all kinds of drinks. I remarked at the time that the delay excited ill-natured remarks; two mothers of pretty girls invited to the fête did not refrain from epigrams launched at the bride.
It was past noon when a salvo of cannon and muskets heralded her arrival, and soon after a state carriage entered the avenue drawn by four magnificent horses. It was easily seen by the foam which covered their chests that the delay had not been on their part. There was no one in the carriage besides the bride, Madam Dowghiello and the Count. He got out and gave his hand to Madam Dowghiello. Mademoiselle Iwinska, with a gracefully coquettish gesture, pretended to hide under a shawl to avoid the curious looks which surrounded her on all sides. But she stood up in the carriage, and was just about to take the Count's hand when the wheelers, terrified maybe by the showers of flowers that the peasants threw at the bride, perhaps also seized with that strange terror which animals seemed to experience at the sight of Count Szémioth, pranced and snorted; a wheel struck the column at the foot of the flight of steps, and for a moment an accident was feared. Mademoiselle Iwinska uttered a little cry,... but all minds were soon relieved, for the Count snatched her in his arms and carried her to the top of the steps as easily as though she had been a clove. We all applauded his presence of mind and his chivalrously gallant conduct. The peasants yelled terrific hurrahs, and the blushing bride laughed and trembled simultaneously. The Count, who was not at all in a hurry to rid himself of his charming burden, evidently exulted in showing her picture to the surrounding crowd....
Suddenly a tall, pale, thin woman, with disordered dress and dishevelled hair, and every feature in her face drawn with terror, appeared at the top of the flight of stairs before anyone could tell from whence she sprang.
"Look at the bear!" she shrieked in a piercing voice, "look at the bear!... Get your guns!... He has carried off a woman! Kill him! Fire! fire!"
It was the Countess. The bride's arrival had attracted everybody to the entrance and to the courtyard or to the windows of the Castle. Even the women who kept guard over the poor maniac had forgotten their charge; she had escaped, and, without being observed by anyone, had come upon us all. It was a most painful scene. She had to be removed, in spite of her cries and resistance. Many of the guests knew nothing about the nature of her illness, and matters had to be explained to them. People whispered in a low tone for a long time after. All faces looked shocked. "It is an ill omen," said the superstitious, and their number is great in Lithuania.
However, Mlle. Iwinska begged for five minutes to settle her toilette and put on her bridal veil, an operation which lasted a full hour. It was more than was required to inform the people who did not know of the Countess's illness of the cause and of its details.
At last the bride reappeared, magnificently attired and covered with diamonds. Her aunt introduced her to all the guests, and, when the moment came to go into the chapel, Madam Dowghiello, to my great astonishment, slapped her niece on the cheek, in the presence of the whole company, hard enough to make those whose attention was not otherwise engaged to turn round. The blow was received with perfect equanimity, and no one seemed surprised; but a man in black wrote something on a paper which he carried, and several of the persons present signed their names with the most nonchalant air. Not until after the ceremony did I find the clue to the riddle. Had I guessed it I should not have failed to oppose the abominable custom with the whole weight of my sacred office as a minister of religion. It was to set up a case for divorce by pretending that the marriage only took place by reason of the physical force exercised against one of the contracting parties.
After the religious service I felt it my duty to address a few words to the young couple, confining myself to putting before them the gravity and sacredness of the bond by which they had just united themselves; and, as I still had Mlle. Iwinska's postscript on my mind, I reminded her that she was now entering a new life, no longer accompanied by childish pleasures and amusements, but filled with serious duties and grave trials. I thought that this portion of my sermon produced much effect upon the bride, as well as on everyone present who understood German.
Volleys of firing and shouts of joy greeted the procession as it came out of the chapel on its way to the dining-hall. The repast was splendid and the appetites very keen; at first no other sounds were audible but the clatter of knives and forks. Soon, however, warmed by champagne and Hungarian wines, the people began to talk and laugh, and even to shout. The health of the bride was drunk with enthusiastic cheers. They had scarcely resumed their seats when an old pane with white moustaches rose up.
"I am grieved to see," he said in a loud voice, "that our ancient customs are disappearing. Our forefathers would never have drunk this toast from glasses of crystal. We drank out of the bride's slipper, and even out of her boot; for in my time ladies wore red morocco boots. Let us show, my friends, that we are still true Lithuanians. And you, Madam, condescend to give me your slipper."
"Come, take it, Monsieur," replied the bride, blushing and stifling a laugh;... "but I cannot satisfy you with a boot."
The pane did not wait a second bidding; he threw himself gracefully on his knees, took off a little white satin slipper with a red heel, filled it with champagne, and drank so quickly and so cleverly that not more than half fell on his clothes. The slipper was passed round, and all the men drank out of it, but not without difficulty. The old gentleman claimed the shoe as a precious relic, and Madam Dowghiello sent for a maid to repair her niece's disordered toilette.
This toast was followed by many others, and soon the guests became so noisy that it did not become me to remain with them longer. I escaped from the table without being noticed and went outside the Castle to get some fresh air, but there, too, I found a none too edifying spectacle. The servants and peasants who had had beer and spirits to their hearts' content were nearly all of them already tipsy. There had been quarrelling and some heads broken. Here and there drunken men lay rolling on the grass in a state of stupidity, and the general aspect of the fete looked much like a field of battle. I should have been interested to watch the popular dances quite close, but most of them were led by impudent gipsies, and I did not think il becoming to venture into such a hubbub. I went back, therefore, to my room and read for some time; then I undressed and soon fell asleep.
When I awoke the Castle clock was striking three o'clock. It was a fine night, although the moon was half shrouded by a light mist. I tried to go to sleep again, but I could not manage it. According to my usual habit when I could not sleep I thought to take up a book and read, but I could not find matches within reach. I got up and was going to grope about the room when a dark body of great bulk passed before my window and fell with a dull thud into the garden. My first impression was that it was a man, and I thought possibly it was one of the drunken men, who had fallen out of the window. I opened mine and looked out, but I could not see anything. I lighted a candle at last, and, getting back into bed, I had gone through my glossary again just as they brought me a cup of tea. Towards eleven o'clock I went to the salon, where I found many scowling eyes and disconcerted looks. I learnt, in short, that the table had not been left until a very late hour. Neither the Count nor the young Countess had yet appeared. At half-past eleven, after many ill-timed jokes, people began to grumble—at first below their breath, but soon aloud. Dr. Frœber took upon himself to send the Count's valet to knock at his master's door. In a quarter of an hour the man came back looking anxious, and reported to Dr. Frœber that he had knocked more than a dozen times without getting any answer. Madam Dowghiello, the doctor and I consulted together. The valet's uneasiness influenced me. We all three went upstairs with him and found the young Countess's maid outside the door very scared, declaring that something dreadful had happened, for Madam's window was wide open. I recollected with horror that heavy body falling past my window. We knocked loudly; still no answer. At length the valet brought an iron bar, and we forced the door.... No! courage fails me to describe the scene which presented itself to our eyes. The young Countess was stretched dead on her bed, her face horribly torn, her throat cut open and covered with blood. The Count had disappeared, and no one has ever heard news of him since.
The doctor examined the young girl's ghastly wound.
"It was not a steel blade," he exclaimed, "which did this wound.... It was a bite...."
The doctor closed his book, and looked thoughtfully into the fire.
"And is that the end of the story?" asked Adelaide.
"The end," replied the Professor in a melancholy voice.
"But," she continued, "why have you called it 'Lokis'? Not a single person in it is so called."
"It is not the name of a man," said the Professor. "Come, Théodore, do you understand what 'Lokis' means?"
"Not in the very least."
"If you were thoroughly steeped in the law of transformation from the Sanskrit into Lithuanian, you would have recognised in lokis the Sanskrit arkcha, or rikscha. The Lithuanians call lokis that animal which the Greeks called ἄρκτος, the Latins ursus, and the Germans bär.
"Now you will understand my motto:
"Miszka su Lokiu,
Abu du tokiu."
Abu du tokiu."
"You remember that in the romance of Renard the bear is called damp Brun. The Slavs called it Michel, which becomes Miszka in Lithuanian, and the surname nearly always replaces the generic name lokis. In the same way the French have forgotten their new Latin word goupil, or gorpil, and have substituted renard. I could quote you endless other instances...."
But Adelaide observed that it was late, and we ought to go to bed.
To Madame de la Rhune
A young man was walking up and down the waiting-room of a railway station, in an agitated condition. He wore blue spectacles, and, although he had not a cold, he used his pocket-handkerchief incessantly. He held a little black bag in his left hand which, as I learnt later, contained a silk dressing-gown and a pair of Turkish pantaloons.
Every now and again he went to the door and looked into the street, then he drew out his watch and consulted the station clock. The train did not leave for an hour; but there are people who always imagine they will be late. This train was not for people in a pressing hurry; there were very few first-class carriages on it. It was not an hour at which stock-brokers left, after business was finished, to go to their country homes for dinner. When travellers began to appear, a Parisian would have recognised from their bearing that they were either farmers, or small suburban tradesmen. Nevertheless, every time anyone came into the station, or a carriage drew up at the door, the heart of the young man with the blue spectacles became inflated like a balloon, his knees trembled, his bag almost fell from his hands, and his glasses off his nose, where, we may mention in passing, they were seated crookedly.
His agitation increased when, after a long wait, a woman appeared by a side door, from precisely the direction in which he had not kept a constant look-out. She was dressed in black with a thick veil over her face, and she held a brown morocco leather bag in her hand, containing, as I subsequently discovered, a wondrous morning-gown and blue satin slippers. The woman and the young man advanced towards each other looking to right and left, but never in front of them. They came up to one another, shook hands, and stood several minutes without speaking a word, trembling and gasping, a prey to one of those intense emotions for which I would give in exchange a hundred years of a philosopher's life.
"Léon," said the young woman, when she had summoned up courage to speak (I had forgotten to mention that she was young and pretty)—"Léon, what a happy thought! I should never have recognised you with those blue spectacles."
"What a happy thought!" said Léon. "I should never have known you under that black veil."
"What a happy thought!" she repeated. "Let us be quick and take our seats; suppose the train were to start without us!..." (and she squeezed his arm tightly). "No one will suspect us. I am now with Clara and her husband, on the way to their country house, where, to-morrow, I must say good-bye to her;... and," she added, laughing and lowering her head, "she left an hour ago; and to-morrow,... after passing the last evening with her,... (again she pressed his arm), to-morrow, in the morning, she will leave me at the station, where I shall meet Ursula, whom I sent on ahead to my aunt's.... Oh! I have arranged everything. Let us take our tickets.... They cannot possibly guess who we are. Oh! suppose they ask our names at the inn? I have forgotten them already...."
"Monsieur and Madame Duru."
"Oh no! Not Duru. There was a shoemaker called that at the pension."
"Very well. But no one will ask us."
The bell rang, the door of the waiting-room opened, and the carefully veiled young woman rushed into a carriage with her youthful companion. The bell rang a second time, and the door of their compartment was closed.
"We are alone!" they exclaimed delightedly.
But, almost at the same moment, a man of about fifty, dressed completely in black, with a grave and bored expression, entered the carriage and settled himself in a corner. The engine whistled, and the train began to move. The two young people drew back as far as they could from their unwelcome neighbour and began to whisper in English as an additional precaution.
"Monsieur," said the other traveller, in the same tongue, and with a much purer British accent, "if you have secrets to tell to each other, you had better not tell them in English before me, for I am an Englishman. I am extremely sorry to annoy you; but there was only a single man in the other compartment, and I make it a rule never to travel alone with one man only.... He had the face of a Judas and this might have tempted him."
He pointed to his travelling-bag, which he had thrown in before him on the cushion.
"But I shall read if I do not go to sleep."
And, indeed, he did make a gallant effort to sleep. He opened his bag, drew out a comfortable cap, put it on his head, and kept his eyes shut for several minutes; then he reopened them with a gesture of impatience, searched in his bag for his spectacles, then for a Greek book. At length he settled himself to read, with an air of deep attention. While getting his book out of the bag he displaced many things piled up hap-hazard. Among others, he drew out of the depths of the bag a large bundle of Bank of England notes, placed it on the seat opposite him, and, before putting it back in the bag, he showed it to the young man, and asked him if there was a place in N—— where he could change bank-notes.
"Probably, as it is on the route to England."
N—— was the place to which the young people were going. There is quite a tidy little hotel at N——, where people seldom stop except on Saturday evenings. It is held out that the rooms are good, but the host and his helpers are far enough away from Paris to indulge in this provincial vice. The young man whom I have already called by the name of Léon, had been recommended to this hotel some time previously, when he was minus blue spectacles, and, upon his recommendation, his companion and friend had seemed desirous of visiting it.
She was, moreover, at that time in such a condition of mind that the walls of a prison would have seemed delightful, if they had enclosed Léon with her.
In the meantime the train journeyed on; the Englishman read his Greek book, without looking towards his companions, who conversed in that low tone that only lovers can hear. Perhaps I shall not astonish my readers when I tell them that these two were lovers in the fullest acceptation of the term, and what was still more deplorable, they were not married, because there were reasons which placed an obstacle in the way of their desire.
They reached N—-, and the Englishman got out first. Whilst Léon helped his friend to descend from the carriage without showing her legs, a man jumped on to the platform from the next compartment. He was pale, even sallow; his eyes were sunken and bloodshot, and his beard unkempt, a sign by which great criminals are often detected. His dress was clean, but worn almost threadbare. His coat, once black, but now grey at the back and by the elbows, was buttoned up to his chin, probably to hide a waistcoat still more shabby. He went up to the Englishman and put on a deferential tone.
"Uncle!" he said.
"Leave me alone, you wretch!" cried the Englishman, whose grey eyes flashed with anger; and he took a step forward to leave the station.
"Don't drive me to despair," replied the other, with a piteous and yet at the same time menacing accent.
"Will you be good enough to hold my bag for a moment?" said the old Englishman, throwing his travelling-bag at Léon's feet.
He then took the man who had accosted him by the arm, and led, or rather pushed, him into a corner, where he hoped they would not be overheard, and there he seemed to address him roughly for a moment. He then drew some papers from his pocket, crumpled them up, and put them in the hand of the man who had called him uncle. The latter took the papers without offering any thanks, and almost immediately took himself off and disappeared.
As there is but the one hotel in N—— it was not surprising that, after a short interval, all the characters of this veracious story met together there. In France every traveller who has the good fortune to have a well-dressed wife on his arm is certain to obtain the best room in any hotel; so firmly is it believed that we are the politest nation in Europe.
If the bedroom that was assigned to Léon was the best, it would be rash to conclude that it was perfect. It had a great walnut bedstead, with chintz curtains, on which was printed in violet the magic story of Pyramis and Thisbé. The walls were covered with a coloured paper representing a view of Naples and a multitude of people; unfortunately, idle and impertinent visitors had drawn moustaches and pipes to all the figures, both male and female, and many silly things had been scribbled in lead-pencil in rhyme and prose on the sky and ocean. Upon this background hung several engravings: "Louis Philippe taking the Oath of the Charter of 1830," "The first Interview between Julia and Saint-Preux," "Waiting for Happiness," and "Regrets," after M. Dubuffe. This room was called the Blue Chamber, because the two armchairs to left and right of the fireplace were upholstered in Utrecht velvet of that colour; but for a number of years they had been covered with wrappers of grey glazed calico edged with red braid.
Whilst the hotel servants crowded round the new arrival and offered their services, Léon, who, although in love, was not destitute of common sense, went to order dinner. It required all his eloquence and various kinds of bribes to extract the promise of a dinner by themselves alone. Great was his dismay when he learnt that in the principal dining-room, which was next his room, the officers of the 3rd Hussars, who were about to relieve the officers of of the 3rd Chasseurs at N—— , were going to join at a farewell dinner that very day, which would be a lively affair. The host swore by all his gods that, except a certain amount of gaiety which was natural to every French soldier, the officers of the Hussars and Chasseurs were known throughout the town for their gentlemanly and discreet behaviour, and that their proximity would not inconvenience madam in the least; the officers were in the habit of rising from table before midnight.
As Léon went back to the Blue Chamber but slightly reassured, he noticed that the Englishman occupied the other room next his. The door was open, and the Englishman sat at a table upon which were a glass and a bottle. He was looking at the ceiling with profound attention, as though he were counting the flies walking on it.
"What matter if they are so near," said Léon to himself. "The Englishman will soon be tipsy, and the Hussars will leave before midnight."
On entering the Blue Chamber his first care was to make sure that the communicating doors were tightly locked, and that they had bolts to them. There were double doors on the Englishman's side, and the walls were thick. The partition was thinner on the Hussars' side, but the door had a lock and a bolt. After all, this was a more effectual barrier to curiosity than the blinds of a carriage, and how many people think they are hidden from the world in a hackney carriage!
Assuredly the most opulent imagination could certainly never have pictured a more complete state of happiness than that of these two young lovers, who, after waiting so long, found themselves alone and far away from jealous and prying eyes, preparing to relate their past sufferings at their ease and to taste the delights of a perfect reunion. But the devil always finds out a way to pour his drop of wormwood into the cup of happiness.
Johnson was not the first who wrote—he took it from a Greek writer—that no man could say, "To-day I shall be happy." This truth was recognised at a very remote period by the greatest philosophers, and yet is ignored by a certain number of mortals, and especially by most lovers.
Whilst taking a poorly served dinner in the Blue Chamber from some dishes filched from the Hussars' and the Chasseurs' banquet, Léon and his lover were much disturbed by the conversation in which the gentlemen in the neighbouring room were engaged. They held forth on abstruse subjects concerning strategy and tactics, which I shall refrain from repeating.
There were a succession of wild stories—nearly all of them broad and accompanied by shrieks of laughter, in which it was often difficult for our lovers not to join. Léon's friend was no prude; but there are things one prefers not to hear, particularly during a tête-à-tête with the man one loves. The situation became more and more embarrassing, and when they were taking in the officers' dessert, Léon felt he must go downstairs to beg the host to tell the gentlemen that he had an invalid wife in the room adjoining theirs, and they would deem it a matter of courtesy if a little less noise were made.
The noise was nothing out of the way for a regimental dinner, and the host was taken aback and did not know what to reply. Just when Léon gave his message for the officers, a waiter asked for champagne for the Hussars, and a maidservant for port wine for the Englishman.
"I told him there was none," she added.
"You are a fool. I have every kind of wine. I will go and find him some. Port is it? Bring me the bottle of ratafia, a bottle of quince and a small decanter of brandy."
When the host had concocted the port in a trice, he went into the large dining-room to execute Léon's commission, which at first, roused a furious storm.
Then a deep voice, which dominated all the others, asked what kind of a woman their neighbour was. There was a brief silence before the host replied—
"Really, gentlemen, I do not know how to answer you. She is very pretty and very shy. Marie-Jeanne says she has a wedding-ring on her finger. She is probably a bride come here on her honeymoon, as so many others come here."
"A bride?" exclaimed forty voices. "She must come and clink glasses with us! We will drink to her health and teach the husband his conjugal duties!"
At these words there was a great jingling of spurs, and our lovers trembled, fearing that their room was about to be taken by storm. All at once a voice was raised which stopped the manœuvre. It evidently belonged to a commanding officer. He reproached the officers with their want of politeness, ordered them to sit down again and to talk decently, without shouting. Then he added some words too low to be heard in the Blue Chamber. He was listened to with deference, but, nevertheless, not without exciting a certain amount of covert hilarity. From that moment there was comparative quiet in the officers' room; and our lovers, blessing the salutary reign of discipline, began to talk together with more freedom.... But after such confusion it was a little time before they regained that peace of mind which anxiety, the worries of travelling, and, worse than all, the loud merriment of their neighbours, had so greatly agitated. This was not very difficult to accomplish, however, at their age, and they had very soon forgotten all the troubles of their adventurous expedition in thinking of its more important consequences.
They thought peace was declared with the Hussars. Alas! it was but a truce. Just when they expected it least, when they were a thousand leagues away from this sublunary world, twenty-four trumpets, supported by several trombones, struck up the air well known to French soldiers, "La victoire est nous!" How could anyone withstand such a tempest? The poor lovers might well complain.
But they had not much longer to complain, for at the end the officers left the dining-room, filed past the door of the Blue Chamber with a great clattering of spurs and sabres, and shouted one after the other—
"Good night, madam bride!"
Then all noise stopped. No, I am mistaken; the Englishman came out into the passage and cried out—
"Waiter! bring me another bottle of the same port."
Quiet was restored in the hotel of N——. The night was fine and the moon at the full. From time immemorial lovers have been pleased to gaze at our satellite. Léon and his lover opened their window, which looked on a small garden, and breathed with delight the fresh air, which was filled with the scent of a bower of clematis.
They had not looked out long, however, before a man came to walk in the garden. His head was bowed, his arms crossed, and he had a cigar in his mouth. Léon thought he recognised the nephew of the Englishman who was fond of good port wine.
I dislike useless details, and, besides, I do not feel called upon to tell the reader things he can readily imagine, nor to relate all that happened hour by hour in the inn at N——. I will merely say that the candle which burned on the tireless mantelpiece of the Blue Chamber was more than half consumed when a strange sound issued from the Englishman's room, in which there had been silence until now; it was like the fall of a heavy body. To this noise was added a kind of cracking, quite as odd, followed by a smothered cry and several inarticulate words like an oath. The two young occupants of the Blue Chamber shuddered. Perhaps they had been waked up suddenly by it. The noise seemed a sinister one to both of them, for they could not explain it.
"Our friend the Englishman is dreaming," said Léon, trying to force a smile.
But although he wanted to reassure his companion, he shivered involuntarily. Two or three minutes afterwards a door in the corridor opened cautiously, as it seemed, then closed very quietly. They heard a slow and unsteady footstep which appeared to be trying to disguise its gait.
"What a cursed inn!" exclaimed Léon.
"Ah, it is a paradise!" replied the young woman, letting her head fall on Léon's shoulder. "I am dead with sleep...."
She sighed, and was very soon fast asleep again.
A famous moralist has said that men are never garrulous when they have all their heart's desire. It is not surprising, therefore, that Léon made no further attempt to renew the conversation or to discourse upon the noises in the hotel at N——. Nevertheless, he was preoccupied, and his imagination pieced together many events to which in another mood he would have paid no attention. The evil countenance of the Englishman's nephew returned to his memory. There was hatred in the look that he threw at his uncle even while he spoke humbly to him, doubtless because he was asking for money.
What would be easier than for a man, still young and vigorous, and desperate besides, to climb from the garden to the window of the next room? Moreover, he was staying at the hotel, and would walk in the garden after dark, perhaps ... quite possibly ... undoubtedly, he knew that his uncle's black bag contained a thick bundle of bank-notes.... And that heavy blow, like the blow of a club on a bald head!... that stifled cry!... that fearful oath! and those steps afterwards! That nephew looked like an assassin.... But people do not assassinate in a hotel full of officers. Surely the Englishman, like a wise man, had locked himself in, specially knowing the rogue was about.... He evidently mistrusted him, since he had not wished to accost him bag in hand.... But why allow such hideous thoughts when one is so happy?
Thus did Léon cogitate to himself. In the midst of his thoughts, which I will refrain from analysing at greater length, and which passed in his mind like so many confused dreams, he fixed his eyes mechanically on the door of communication between the Blue Chamber and the Englishman's room.
In France, doors fit badly. Between this one and the floor there was a space of nearly an inch. Suddenly, from this space, which was hardly lighted by the reflection from the polished floor, there appeared something blackish and flat, like a knife blade, for the edge which the candlelight caught showed a thin line which shone brightly. It moved slowly in the direction of a little blue-satin slipper, which had been carelessly thrown close to this door. Was it some insect like a centipede?... No, it was no insect. It had no definite shape.... Two or three brown streams, each with its line of light on its edges, had come through into the room. Their pace quickened, for the floor was a sloping one.... They came on rapidly and touched the little slipper. There was no longer any doubt! It was a liquid, and that liquid, the colour of which could now be distinctly seen by the candlelight, was blood! While Léon, paralysed with horror, watched these frightful streams, the young woman slept on peacefully, her regular breathing warming her lover's neck and shoulder.
The care which Léon had taken in ordering the dinner on their arrival at the inn of N—— adequately proved that he had a pretty level head, a high degree of intelligence and that he could look ahead. He did not in this emergency belie the character we have already indicated, he did not stir, and the whole strength of his mind was strained to keep this resolve in the presence of the frightful disaster which threatened him.
I can imagine that most of my readers, and, above all, my lady readers, filled with heroic sentiments, will blame the conduct of Léon on this occasion for remaining motionless. They will tell me he ought to have rushed to the Englishman's room and arrested the murderer, or, at least, to have pulled his bell and rung up the people of the hotel. To this I reply that, in the first case, the bells in French inns are only room ornaments, and their cords do not correspond to any metallic apparatus. I would add respectfully, but decidedly, that, if it is wrong to leave an Englishman to die close by one, it is not praiseworthy to sacrifice for him a woman who is sleeping with her head on your shoulder. What would have happened if Léon had made an uproar and roused the hotel? The police, the inspector and his assistant would have come at once. These gentlemen are by profession so curious, that, before asking him what he had seen or heard, they would have questioned him as follows:—
"What is your name? Where are your papers? And what about Madam? What were you doing together in the Blue Chamber? You will have to appear at the Assizes to explain the exact month, at what hour in the night, you were witnesses of this deed."
Now it was precisely this thought of the inspector and officers of the law which first occurred to Léon's mind. Everywhere throughout life there are questions of conscience difficult to solve. Is it better to allow an unknown traveller to have his throat cut, or to disgrace and lose the woman one loves?
It is unpleasant to have to propose such a problem. I defy the cleverest person to solve it.
Léon did then what probably most would have done in his place. He never moved.
He remained fascinated for a long time with his eyes fixed upon the blue slipper and the little red stream which touched it. A cold sweat moistened his temples, and his heart beat in his breast as though it would burst.
A host of thoughts and strange and horrible fancies took possession of him, and an inward voice cried out all the time, "In an hour all will be known, and it is your own fault!" Nevertheless, by dint of repeating to himself "Qu'allais-je faire dans cette galère?" he finished up by perceiving some few rays of hope. "If we leave this accursed hotel," he said to himself at last, "before the discovery of what has happened in the adjoining room, perhaps they may lose trace of us. No one knows us here. I have only been seen in blue spectacles, and she has only been seen in a veil. We are only two steps from the station, and should be far away from it in an hour."
Then, as he had studied the time-table at great length to make out his journey, he recollected that a train for Paris stopped at eight o'clock. Very soon afterwards they would be lost in the vastness of that town, where so many guilty persons are concealed. Who could discover two innocent people there? But would they not go into the Englishman's room before eight o'clock? That was the vital question.
Quite convinced that there was no other course before him, he made a desperate effort to shake off the torpor which had taken possession of him for so long, but at the first movement he made his young companion woke up and kissed him half-consciously. At the touch of his icy cheek she uttered a little cry.
"What is the matter?" she said to him anxiously. "Your forehead is as cold as marble."
"It is nothing," he replied in a voice which belied his words. "I heard a noise in the next room...."
He freed himself from her arms, then he moved the blue slipper and put an armchair in front of the door of communication, so as to hide the horrid liquid from his lover's eyes. It had stopped flowing, and had now collected into quite a big pool on the floor. Then he half opened the door which led to the passage, and listened attentively. He even ventured to go up to the Englishman's door, which was closed. There were already stirrings in the hotel, for day had begun. The stablemen were grooming the horses in the yard, and an officer came downstairs from the second story, clinking his spurs. He was on his way to preside at that interesting piece of work, more agreeable to horses than to men, which is technically known as la botte.
Léon re-entered the Blue Chamber, and, with every precaution that love could invent, with the help of much circumlocution and many euphemisms, he revealed their situation to his friend.
It was dangerous to stay and dangerous to leave too precipitately; still much more dangerous to wait at the hotel until the catastrophe in the next room was discovered.
There is no need to describe the terror caused by this communication, or the tears which followed it, the senseless suggestions which were advanced, or how many times the two unhappy young people flung themselves into each other's arms, saying, "Forgive me! forgive me!" Each took the blame. They vowed to die together, for the young woman did not doubt that the law would find them guilty of the murder of the Englishman, and as they were not sure that they would be allowed to embrace each other again on the scaffold they did it now to suffocation, and vied with each other in watering themselves with tears. At length, after having talked much rubbish and exchanged many tender and harrowing words, they decided, in the midst of a thousand kisses, that the plan thought out by Léon, to leave by the eight o'clock train, was really the only one practicable, and the best to follow. But there were still two mortal hours to get through. At each step in the corridor they trembled in every limb. Each creak of boots proclaimed the arrival of the inspector.
Their small packing was done in a flash. The young woman wanted to burn the blue slipper in the fireplace; but Léon picked it up and, after wiping it by the bedside, he kissed it and put it in his pocket. He was astonished to find that it smelt of vanilla, though his lover's perfume was "Bouquet de l'impératrice Eugénie."
Everybody in the hotel was now awake. They heard the laughing of waiters, servant-girls singing at their work, and soldiers brushing their officers' clothes. Seven o'clock had just struck. Léon wanted to make his friend drink a cup of coffee, but she declared that her throat was so choked up that she should die if she tried to drink anything.
Léon, armed with the blue spectacles, went down to pay the bill. The host begged his pardon for the noise that had been made; he could not at all understand it, for the officers were always so quiet! Léon assured him that he had heard nothing, but had slept profoundly.
"I don't think your neighbour on the other side would inconvenience you," continued the landlord; "he did not make much noise. I bet he is still sleeping soundly."
Léon leant hard against the desk to keep from falling, and the young woman, who had followed him closely, clutched at his arm and tightened the veil over her face.
"He is a swell," added the pitiless host. "He will have the best of everything. Ah! he is a good sort. But all the English are not like him. There was one here who is a skinflint. He thought everything too dear: his room, his dinner. He wanted me to take a five-pound Bank of England note in settlement of his bill for one hundred and eighty-five francs,... and to risk whether it was a good one! But stop, Monsieur; perhaps you will know, for I heard you talking English with Madam.... Is it a good one?"
With these words he showed Léon a five-pound bank-note. On one of its corners there was a little spot of red which Léon could readily explain to himself.
"I think it is quite good," he said in a stifled voice.
"Oh, you have plenty of time," replied the host; "the train is not due here till eight o'clock, and it is always late. Will you not sit down, Madam? you seem tired...."
At this moment a fat servant-girl came up.
"Hot water, quick," she said, "for milord's tea. Give me a sponge too. He has broken a bottle of wine and the whole room is flooded."
At these words Léon fell into a chair, and his companion did the same. An intense desire to laugh overtook them both, and they had the greatest difficulty in restraining themselves. The young woman squeezed his hand joyfully.
"I think we will not go until the two o'clock train," said Léon to the landlord. "Let us have a good meal at midday."
I was twenty-three years old when I set out for Rome. My father gave me a dozen letters of introduction, one of which, four pages long, was sealed. It was addressed: "To the Marquise Aldobrandi."
"You must write and tell me if the Marquise is still beautiful," said my father.
Now, from my earliest childhood, I had seen over the mantelpiece in his study a miniature of a very lovely woman, with powdered hair crowned with ivy, and a tiger skin over her shoulder. Underneath was the inscription, "Roma, 18—." The dress struck me as so strange that I had many times asked who the lady was.
"It is a bacchante," was the only answer given me.
But this reply hardly satisfied me. I even suspected a secret beneath it, for, at this simple question, my mother would press her lips together, and my father look very serious.
This time, when giving me the sealed letter, he looked stealthily at the portrait; involuntarily I did the same, and the idea came into my head that the powdered bacchante might perhaps be the Marquise Aldobrandi. As I had begun to understand the world I drew all kinds of conclusions from my mother's expression and my father's looks.
When I reached Rome, the first letter I delivered was the one to the Marquise. She lived in a beautiful palace close to the square of Saint-Mark.
I gave my letter and my card to a servant in yellow livery, who showed me into a vast room, dark and gloomy, and badly furnished. But in all Roman palaces there are pictures by the old masters. This room contained a great number of them, and several were very remarkable.
The first one I examined was a portrait of a woman which I thought was a Leonardo da Vinci. By the magnificence of the frame, and the rosewood easel on which it rested, there was no doubt it was the chief gem of the collection. As the Marquise was long in coming I had plenty of time to look at it. I even carried it to a window to see it in a more favourable light. It was evidently a portrait and not a fancy study, for such a face could not have been imagined: she was a beautiful woman, with rather thick lips, eyebrows nearly joined, and an expression that was both haughty and endearing. Underneath was her coat of arms, surmounted by a ducal coronet. But what struck me most was the dress, which even to the powder was like that of my father's bacchante.
I was holding the portrait in my hand when the Marquise entered.
"Exactly like his father!" she cried, coming towards me. "Ah, you French! you French! Hardly arrived before he seizes upon 'Madam Lucrezia.'"
I hastened to make excuses for my impertinence, and began to praise at random the chef-d'œuvre of Leonardo, which I had been so bold as to lift out of its place.
"It is indeed a Leonardo," said the Marquise, "and it is the portrait of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia. Of all my pictures it was the one your father admired most.... But, good heavens! what a resemblance! I think I see your father as he was twenty-five years ago. How is he? What is he doing? And will he not come to see us at Rome some time?"
Although the Marquise did not wear either tiger skin or powdered hair, at the first glance, and with my natural quickness of perception, I recognised in her my father's bacchante. Some twenty-five years had not been able entirely to efface the traces of great beauty. Her expression only had changed, even as her toilette. She was dressed completely in black, and her treble chin, her grave smile and her manner, serious and yet radiant, apprised me that she had become religious.
No one could have given me a warmer welcome; in a few words she offered me her home, her purse and her friends, among whom she mentioned several cardinals.
"Look upon me," she said, "as your mother."
She lowered her eyes modestly.
"Your father has charged me to look after you and to advise you."
And to show me that she did not intend her office to be a sinecure she began at once to put me on my guard against the dangers Rome had for young men of my age, and exhorted me earnestly to avoid them. I must shun bad company, artists especially, and only associate with people that she chose for me. In fact, I received a lengthy sermon. I replied respectfully, and with conventional hypocrisy.
"I regret that my son the Marquis should be away on our property at Romagna," she said, as I rose to go, "but I will introduce you to my second son, Don Ottavio, who will soon become a Monsignor. I hope you will like him, and that you will make friends with each other as you ought to...."
She broke off precipitately—
"For you are nearly the same age, and he is a nice steady boy like yourself."
She sent immediately for Don Ottavio, and I was presented to a tall, pale young man, whose downcast, melancholy eyes seemed already conscious of his hypocrisy.
Without giving him time to speak, the Marquise offered me in his name the most ready services. He assented by bowing low at all his mother's suggestions, and it was arranged that he should take me to see the sights of the town on the following day and bring me back to dinner en famille at the Aldobrandi palace.
I had hardly gone twenty steps down the road when an imperious voice exclaimed behind me—
"Where are you going alone at this hour, Don Ottavio?"
I turned round and saw a fat priest, who looked me up and down from head to foot with his eyes wide open.
"I am not Don Ottavio," I said.
The priest bowed down to the ground, profuse in apologies, and a moment after I saw him go into the Aldobrandi palace. I continued on my way, not much flattered at being taken for a budding Monsignor.
In spite of the Marquise's warnings, perhaps even because of them, my next most pressing concern was to find out the lodging of a painter I knew, and I spent an hour with him at his studio talking over the legitimate or dubious ways of enjoying oneself that Rome could provide. I led him to the subject of the Aldobrandi.
The Marquise, he said, after being excessively frivolous became highly devotional when she recognised that she was too old for further conquests. Her eldest son was a fool, who spent his time hunting and receiving the rents of the farms on his vast estates. They were going the right way to make an idiot of the second son, Don Ottavio; he was to be a cardinal some day. Until then he was given up to the Jesuits. He never went out alone; he was forbidden to look at a woman, or to take a single step without a priest at his heels, who had educated him for God's service, and who, after having been the Marquise's last amico, now ruled her house with almost despotic authority.
The next day Don Ottavio, followed by the Abbé Negroni, he who had taken me for his pupil the previous evening, came to take me out in a carriage and to offer his services as cicerone.
The first public building we stopped at was a church. Following his priest's example, Don Ottavio knelt down, beat his breast, and made endless signs of the cross. After he had got up he showed me the frescoes and statues, and talked like a man of sense and taste. This was an agreeable surprise to me; we began to talk, and his conversation pleased me. For some time we conversed in Italian, but suddenly he said to me in French—
"My director does not understand a word of your language; let us talk French, and we shall feel freer."
It might be said that change of idiom transformed the young man. There was nothing that smacked of the priest in his talk. I could have imagined him one of our own liberal-minded men. I noticed that he said everything in an even, monotonous tone of voice, which often contrasted strangely with the vivacity of his sentiments. It was, apparently, a ruse to put Negroni off the scent, who from time to time asked us to explain what we were talking about. I need hardly say that our translation was extremely free.
A young man in violet stockings passed us.
"That is one of our modern patricians," said Don Ottavio. "Wretched livery! and it will be mine in a few months! What happiness," he added after a moment's silence—"what happiness to live in a country like yours! If I were French I might perhaps one day have become a deputy."
This high ambition made me feel strongly inclined to laugh, and as the Abbé noticed it, I had to explain that we were talking of the error of an archaeologist who mistook a statue by Bernini for an antique.
We dined at the Aldobrandi palace. Directly after the coffee the Marquise asked me to excuse her son, who was obliged to retire to his room to fulfil certain pious duties. I remained alone with her, and the Abbé Negroni leant back in his chair and slept the sleep of the just.
In the meantime the Marquise interrogated me minutely about my father, about Paris, as to my past life, and on my future plans. She seemed to me a good and amiable woman, but rather too inquisitive and over-much concerned about my salvation. But she spoke Italian perfectly, and I took a lesson in pronunciation from her which I promised myself I would repeat.
I often came to see her. Nearly every morning I visited the antiquities with her son and the ever-present Negroni, and in the evenings I dined with them at the Aldobrandi palace. The Marquise entertained very rarely, and then nearly always ecclesiastics.
Once, however, she introduced me to a German lady, who was a recent convert and her intimate friend. She was a certain Madam de Strahlenheim, a very handsome woman who had lived a long while in Rome. Whilst these ladies talked together about a celebrated preacher, I studied, by the lamp-light, the portrait of Lucrezia, until I felt it my duty to put in a word.
"What eyes!" I exclaimed; "her eyelids almost seem to move!"
At this somewhat pretentious figure of speech which I ventured on to show myself to Madam Strahlenheim in the light of a connoisseur, she trembled with fear and hid her face in her handkerchief.
"What is the matter, my dear?" said the Marquise.
"Oh! nothing but what Monsieur said just now!..."
We pressed her with questions, and when she said that my phrase had recalled a horrible story we compelled her to relate it.
Here it is in a few words:—
Madam de Strahlenheim had a sister-in-law called Wilhelmina, who was betrothed to a young man from Westphalia, Julius de Katzenellenbogen, a volunteer in General Kleist's division. I am very sorry to have to repeat so many barbarous names, but extraordinary episodes never happen except to people with names which are difficult to pronounce.
Julius was a charming fellow, full of patriotic feeling and love of metaphysics. He gave his portrait to Wilhelmina when he entered the army and she gave him hers, which he wore next his heart. They do this sort of thing in Germany.
On the 13th of September, 1813, Wilhelmina was at Cassel. She was sitting in a room, about five o'clock in the afternoon, busy knitting with her mother and sister-in-law. While she worked she looked at her fiancé's portrait, which was standing on a little table opposite to her. Suddenly she uttered a terrible cry, put her hand on her heart and fainted. They had the greatest difficulty in the world to bring her back to consciousness, and, as soon as she could speak, she said—
"Julius is dead! He has been killed!"
She insisted that she had seen the portrait shut its eyes, and at the same instant that she had felt a terrible pain as though a red-hot iron had pierced her heart: her horror-struck countenance gave credence to her words.
Everybody tried to show her that her vision was unreal and that she ought to pay no attention to it. It was of no use. The poor child was inconsolable; she spent the night in tears and wanted to go into mourning the next day, as though quite convinced of the affliction which had been revealed to her. Two days after news came of the bloody battle of Leipzig. Julius wrote to his fiancée a letter dated at three o'clock p.m. on the 13th. He had not been wounded, but had distinguished himself, and was just going into Leipzig, where he expected to pass the night in the general's quarters, which were, of course, out of the range of danger. This reassuring letter did not calm Wilhelmina, who noticed that it had been written at three o'clock, and persisted in believing that her beloved had died at five o'clock.
The unhappy girl was not mistaken. It was known that Julius had been sent out of Leipzig with a despatch at half-past four, and that three-quarters of a league from the town, beyond the Elster, a straggler from the enemy's army, concealed in a trench, had fired and killed him. The bullet pierced his heart and broke the portrait of Wilhelmina.
"And what became of the poor girl?" I asked Madam de Strahlenheim.
"Oh! she has been very ill. She is married now to a gentleman who is a barrister in Werner, and, if you went to Dessau, she would show you Julius's portrait."
"All that was done by the interposition of the devil," the Abbé broke in, for he had only been half asleep during Madam de Strahlenheim's story. "He who could make the heathen oracles speak could easily make the eyes of a portrait move if he thought fit. Not twenty years ago an Englishman was strangled by a statue at Tivoli."
"By a statue!" I exclaimed. "How did that come about?"
"He was a wealthy man who had been making excavations at Tivoli, and had discovered a statue of the Empress Agrippina Messalina ... it matters little which. Whoever it was he had it taken to his house, and by dint of gazing at it and admiring it he became crazy. All Protestants are more than half mad. He called it his wife, his lady, and kissed it, marble as it was. He said that the statue came to life every evening for his benefit. So true was this that one morning they found milord stone dead in his bed. Well, would you believe it?—there was another Englishman quite ready to purchase the statue. Now I would have had it made into lime."
When once stories of the supernatural are let loose there is no stopping them. Everybody contributed his share, and I too took part in this collection of fearful tales; to such purpose that when we broke up we were all pretty well scared and full of respect for the devil's power.
I walked back to my lodgings, and, to get into the Corso, I took a little winding lane, down which I had not yet been. It was quite deserted. I could see nothing but long garden walls, or some mean-looking houses, none of which were lighted up. It had just struck midnight, and the weather was threateningly dark. I was in the middle of the street, walking very quickly, when I heard a slight noise above my head, a st! and just at the same time a rose fell at my feet. I raised my eyes and, in spite of the darkness, I saw a woman clothed in white, at a window, with one arm stretched out towards me. Now we French show to great advantage in a strange land, for our forefathers, the conquerors of Europe, have cradled us in the traditions flattering to national pride. I believed religiously in the susceptibility of all German, Spanish, and Italian ladies at the mere look of a Frenchman. In short, at that period I was still very much of a Frenchman, and, besides, did not the rose tell its own tale plainly enough?
"Madam," I said in a low voice, as I picked up the rose, "you have dropped your nosegay...."
But the lady had already vanished, and the window had been closed noiselessly. I did what every other man would have done in my position: I looked for the nearest door, which was two steps from the window; I found it, and I waited to have it opened for me. Five minutes passed in a profound silence; then I coughed, then I scratched softly, but the door did not open. I examined it more carefully, hoping to find a lock or latch; to my great surprise I found it padlocked.
"The jealous lover has not gone in yet, then," I said to myself.
I picked up a small stone and threw it against the window; it hit a wooden outside shutter and fell at my feet.
"The devil!" I thought; "Roman ladies must be accustomed to lovers who carry ladders in their pockets; no one told me of the custom."
I waited a few more moments, but fruitlessly. I thought once or twice I saw the shutter shake lightly from the inside, as though someone wanted to draw it aside to look into the street, but that was all. My patience was exhausted at the end of a quarter of an hour. I lit a cigar and went on my way, but not until I had carefully taken stock of the position occupied by the padlocked house.
The next day, in thinking over this adventure, I arrived at the following conclusions: A young Roman lady, probably a great beauty, had noticed me in my expeditions about the town, and had been attracted by my feeble charms. If she had declared her passion only by the gift of a mysterious flower, it was because she was restrained by a becoming sense of modesty, or perhaps she had been disturbed in her plans by the presence of some duenna, maybe some cursed guardian like Bartolo de Rosina. I decided to lay siege to the house which was inhabited by this infanta.
With this fine idea in my head I left my rooms when I had first given my hair a finishing touch and had put on my new coat and yellow gloves. In this get-up, with my hat tilted over my ear and the faded rose in my button-hole, I turned my steps toward the street whose name I did not yet know, but which I had no difficulty in discovering. A notice stuck on a Madonna told me it was called "Il viccola di Madama Lucrezia."
I was struck by this name at once, and recollected Leonardo da Vinci's portrait, together with the stories of presentiments and witchcraft that I had heard the evening before at the Marquise's. Then I remembered that some matches are made in heaven. Why should not my love be named Lucrezia? Why should she not be like the Lucrezia of the Aldobrandi collection?
It was dawn. I was within two steps of a ravishing young lady, and no sinister thoughts mingled with the emotion I felt.
I came to the house. It was No. 13. What an unlucky omen!... Alas! it hardly answered to the idea of it that I had conceived by night. It was certainly no palace, whatever else it might be. The walls surrounding it were blackened with age and covered with lichen, and behind these were some fruit trees badly eaten by caterpillars. In one corner of the inclosure was a pavilion one story high, with two windows looking on to the street; both were closed by old shutters furnished outside with a number of iron bars. The door was low, and over it was an old coat of arms almost worn away; it was shut, as on the previous night, by a large padlock which was attached to a chain. Over the door was a notice written in chalk, which read, "House to Let or to be Sold."
However, I had not made a mistake. The houses were too few for confusion to be possible. It was indeed my padlock, and, furthermore, two rose leaves on the pavement, near the door, indicated the exact spot where I had received the evidences of love from my well-beloved, and they also proved that the pavement in front of the house was rarely swept.
I asked several poor people in the neighbourhood if they could tell me where the keeper of this mysterious house lived.
"Not anywhere here," they replied curtly.
My question seemed to displease those to whom I put it; and this piqued my curiosity still further. Going from door to door I finished by going into a kind of dark cave, where was an old woman, who might have been suspected of witchcraft, for she had a black cat, and was cooking some mysterious decoction in a cauldron.
"You want to see over the house of Madam Lucrezia?" she said. "I have the key of it."
"All right. Show me over."
"Do you wish to take it?" she asked, smiling with a dubious air.
"Yes, if it suits me."
"It will not suit you; but, see, will you give me a paul if I show it you?"
Upon this assurance she rose slowly from her stool, unhooked a very rusty key from the wall, and led me to No. 13.
"Why," I said, "do they call this the house of Lucrezia?"
"Why are you called a foreigner?" retorted the old woman, chuckling. "Is it not because you are a foreigner?"
"Certainly. But who was this Madam Lucrezia? Was she a Roman lady?"
"What! you come to Rome without knowing Madam Lucrezia? I will tell you her history when we are inside. But here is another devilish trick! I do not know what has come to this key—it will not turn. You try it."
Indeed, the padlock and the key had not seen each other for a long time. Nevertheless, by means of three or four oaths and much grinding of my teeth, I succeeded in turning the lock; but I tore my yellow gloves and strained the palm of my hand. We entered upon a dark passage, which led to several low rooms.
The curiously decorated ceilings were covered with cobwebs, under which traces of gilding could dimly be seen. By the damp smell which pervaded every room it was evident they had not been occupied for a long time. There was not a single stick of furniture in them, only some strips of old leather hung down the saltpetred walls. From the carving of some consoles and the shape of the chimney-pieces I concluded that the house dated from the fifteenth century, and it is probable that at one time it had been tastefully decorated. The windows had little square panes of glass, most of which were broken; they looked into the garden, where I noticed a rose tree in flower, some fruit trees, and a quantity of broccoli.
When I had wandered through all the rooms on the ground floor, I went upstairs to the story from where I had seen my mysterious being. The old woman tried to keep me back by telling me there was nothing to see and that the staircase was in a very bad state. Seeing I was headstrong, she followed me, but with marked aversion. The rooms on this floor were very much like the others, only they were not so damp, and the floors and windows also were in a better state. In the last room that I entered I saw a large armchair covered with black leather, which, strangely enough, was not covered with dust. I sat down in it, and finding it comfortable enough in which to hear a story, I asked the old woman to tell me the history of Madam Lucrezia; but, in order to refresh her memory, I first gave her a present of several pauls. She cleared her throat, blew her nose, and began the following story:—
"In heathen times, when Alexander was Emperor, he had a daughter, who was as beautiful as the day. She was called Madam Lucrezia. Stop—there she is!..."
I turned round quickly. The old woman was pointing to a carved console which upheld the chief beam of the room. It was a very roughly carved siren.
"Goodness!" went on the old woman, "how she loved to enjoy herself! And, as her father found fault with her, she had this house built.
"Every night she left the Quirinal and came here to amuse herself. She stood at that window, and when a fine cavalier, such as yourself, Monsieur, passed by in the street, she called to him, and I leave you to guess if he was well received. But most men are chattering magpies, and they could have done her great harm by their babbling, so she took care to guard herself. When she had made her adieu to her lover, her armed attendants filled the staircase by which we came up. They despatched you, and then buried you among the cabbages! Yes, many of their bones are found in the garden!
"This establishment went on for a long time, but one evening her brother, Sisto Tarquino, passed under the window. She did not recognise him, and she called to him. He came up. In the dark all cats look grey, and he was treated like all the others. But he had left his handkerchief behind, and his name was upon it.
"Despair seized her as soon as she saw the mischief she had done. She immediately unwound her garter and hung herself from that beam up there. What an example for young people!"
While the old woman was thus confusing the ages, mixing up the Tarquins with the Borgias, I had my eyes fixed on the flooring. I had discovered several rose petals still quite fresh, which gave me plenty to think of.
"Who attends to this garden?" I asked the old woman.
"My son, Monsieur, gardener to M. Vanozzi, who has the next garden. M. Vanozzi is always away in the Maremma; and he hardly ever comes to Rome. That is why the garden is not very nicely kept. My son goes with him, and I am afraid they will not come back for a very long time," she added, with a sigh.
"He is busily employed, then, with M. Vanozzi."
"Oh, he is a queer man—busy over too many things. I am afraid he spends his time in a bad way.... Ah, my poor boy!"
She took a step towards the door as though she wanted to change the conversation.
"No one lives here, then?" I resumed, stopping her.
"Not a single creature."
"And why is that?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Listen to me," I said, as I gave her a piastre. "Tell me the truth. A woman comes here."
"A woman? Good Lord!"
"Yes; I saw her yesterday evening and I spoke to her."
"Holy Mother!" cried the old dame, and she rushed to the staircase; "it must be Madam Lucrezia! Let us go! let us go, Monsieur! They certainly told me she walked here by night, but I did not wish to tell it you for fear of injuring the landlord, because I thought you wished to rent it."
It was out of the question to keep her there; she hurried out of the house, anxious, she said, "to light a candle in the nearest church."
I went out too, and let her go, hopeless of learning anything more from her.
You will readily guess that I did not relate my adventures at the Aldobrandi palace; the Marquise was too prudish, and Don Ottavio too much taken up with politics to be a useful adviser in a love affair. But I went to my artist friend, who knew Rome from end to end, and asked him what he thought of it.
"I think you have seen the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia," he said. "What a danger you have run into! She was dangerous enough when she was alive; imagine how much more she must be now she is dead! It makes me shudder to think of it."
"You are surely half joking?"
"So Monsieur is an atheist and a philosopher and does not believe in the most orthodox explanations. Very well, then. What do you say to another hypothesis? Suppose the old woman lets the house to women who are equal to accosting men who pass by in the street; there are old women sufficiently depraved to drive such a trade."
"Wonderful," I said. "Then I must look like a saint, for the old dame never suggested any such offers. You insult me. Besides, my friend, remember the furnishing of the house: a man must be possessed by the devil to be satisfied with it."
"Then it is a ghost, there can be no doubt about it. But wait a bit, I have still another idea. You have mistaken the house—ah! that is it; near a garden? With a little low door to it.... Why, that is my dear friend Rosina's! Eighteen months ago she was the ornament of that street. It is true she has become blind in one eye, but that is a trifle.... She still has a very lovely profile."
None of these explanations satisfied me. When evening came I walked slowly past the house of Lucrezia, but I did not see anything. I went up and down past it with no further result. Three or four evenings followed, and I danced attendance under her windows as I went home from the Aldobrandi palace, with ever the same want of success. I had begun to forget the mysterious occupant of No. 13, when, passing towards midnight through the lane, I distinctly heard a woman's light laugh behind the shutter of the window at which the giver of the flowers had appeared to me. Twice I heard that little laugh, and I could not prevent feeling slightly afraid, when just at that moment I saw come out at the other end of the street a group of penitents, closely hooded, with tapers in hand, bearing a corpse to burial. When they had gone by I took up my stand once more under the window; but this time I did not hear anything. I tried to throw pebbles; and I even called out more or less loudly; but still no one appeared; and, a heavy shower coming on, I was obliged to beat a retreat.
I am ashamed to tell how many times I stood before that accursed house without succeeding in solving the riddle that tormented me. Once only did I pass along the Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia with Don Ottavio and his ubiquitous Abbé.
"That is the house of Lucrezia," I said.
I saw him change colour.
"Yes," he replied; "a very dubious popular tradition asserts that Lucrezia Borgia's little house was here. If those walls could speak, what horrors they could reveal to us! Nevertheless, my friend, when I compare those times with our own I am seized with regrets. Under Alexander VI. there were still Romans. Now there are none. Cæsar Borgia was a monster; but he was a great man. He tried to turn the barbarians out of Italy; and perhaps, if his father had lived, he might have accomplished his great design. Oh! if only Heaven would send us a tyrant like Borgia to deliver us from these human despots who are degrading us!"
When Don Ottavio threw himself into the realms of politics, it was impossible to stop him. We were at the Piazza del Popolo before his panegyric in favour of enlightened despotism was concluded; but we were a thousand miles from the subject of my Lucrezia.
One night, when I was very late in paying my respects to the Marquise, she told me her son was unwell, and begged me to go up to his room. I found him lying on his bed, still dressed, reading a French journal which I had sent him that morning concealed between the leaves of a volume of the Fathers. An edition of the Holy Fathers had for some time served us for those communications which he had to conceal from the Abbé and the Marquise. On the day when the Courier de France appeared I received a folio Father. I returned another, in which I slipped a newspaper, lent me by the Ambassador's secretary. This gave the Marquise an exalted notion of my piety; and also his director, who often wanted to make me discuss theology with him.
When I had talked for some time with Don Ottavio, and had noticed that he seemed so much upset that not even politics could attract his attention, I recommended him to undress, and I bid him adieu. It was cold, and I had no coat with me; Don Ottavio pressed me to take his, and in accepting it I received a lesson in the difficult art of wearing a cloak in the proper Roman fashion.
I left the Aldobrandi palace muffled up to the eyes. I had gone but few steps on the pavement of the Square of Saint-Mark when a peasant, whom I had noticed seated on a bench by the gate of the palace, came up to me and held out a crumpled bit of paper.
"Read it, for the love of God!" he said, and quickly disappeared, running at top speed.
I took the paper, and looked round for a light by which to read it. By the light of a lamp which was burning before a Madonna I saw it was a pencilled note, and written apparently in a trembling hand. I had much difficulty in making out the following words:—
"Do not come to-night, or we are lost! All is known except your name. Nothing can sever us.—Your LUCREZIA."
"Lucrezia!" I cried, "Lucrezia again! What devilish mystification underlies all this? 'Do not come.' But, my good lady, what road must I take to find you out?"
While I was cogitating over the contents of this note I mechanically took the road to the Yiccolo di Madama Lucrezia, and soon found myself in front of No. 13.
The street was deserted as usual, and only the sound of my footsteps disturbed the profound silence which reigned all round. I stopped and looked up at the well-known window. This time I was not mistaken: the shutter was pushed back and the window was wide open.
I thought I saw a human shape standing out from the dark background of the room.
"Lucrezia, is it you?" I said in a low voice.
No one answered, but I heard a clicking-noise, the cause of which I could not at first understand.
"Lucrezia, are you there?" I repeated rather louder.
At the same instant I received a sharp blow in the chest, followed by the sound of a report, and down I went on the pavement.
"Take that from the Signora Lucrezia!" cried out a hoarse voice, and the shutter was noiselessly closed.
I soon staggered to my feet, and the first thing I did was to feel myself all over, as I expected to find a big hole in my body. The cloak and my coat were both pierced, but the ball had been blunted by the folds of the cloth, and I had escaped with nothing worse than a nasty bruise.
The idea that a second shot might not be long in coming made me drag myself close up to the side of this inhospitable house, and I squeezed close to the walls, so that I could not be seen.
I took myself off as quickly as I could, still panting, when a man whom I had not noticed behind me took my arm and asked me anxiously if I were hurt.
By the voice I recognised Don Ottavio. It was not the moment to question him, however surprised I was to see him alone and in the street at that time of night. I told him briefly that I had just been fired at from a window, but that I was only grazed.
"It is a mistake!" he cried. "But I hear people coming. Can you walk? If we are seen together I shall be lost; but I will not abandon you."
He took my arm and led me along at a rapid pace. We walked, or rather ran, as fast as I could manage; but I was soon obliged to sit down on a stump to get my breath.
Happily we were by that time not far from a large house where a ball was being given; there were numbers of carriages in front of the door, and Don Ottavio went to find one, then he put me inside and conducted me to my hotel. After a good drink of water I felt quite restored and related to him minutely all that had happened in front of that fatal house, from the gift of the rose to that of the bullet.
He listened with his head bent down, half hidden behind one of his hands. When I showed him the note that I had received, he seized it and read it eagerly.
"It is a mistake! A wretched mistake!" he exclaimed again.
"You will admit, my dear fellow," I said to him, "that it is extremely disagreeable for both of us. I might have been killed, and there are about a dozen holes in your fine cloak. Good gracious! how jealous your fellow-countrymen are!"
Don Ottavio shook hands with me, looking the picture of woe, and re-read the note without answering.
"Do try," I said, "to offer me some explanation of this affair. Devil take it if I can make anything of it!"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"At least tell me what I ought to do," I said; "to whom I should address my grievances in this pious town of yours, in order to see justice done to this gentleman who peppers passers-by without even asking them their names. I confess I should love to see him hanged."
"Be very careful," he cried. "You do not know this country. Do not say a word to anyone of what has happened, or you will expose yourself too much."
"What shall I expose myself to? Damn it! I mean to have my revenge. If I had offended the scoundrel there might be some excuse; but, because I picked up a rose.... In all conscience, surely I did not deserve to be shot."
"Let me act in the matter," said Don Ottavio; "perhaps I shall succeed in clearing up the mystery. But I ask you as a special favour, as a signal proof of your friendship for me, not to mention this to a single soul. Will you promise me?"
He looked so sad as he entreated that I had not the heart to resist him, and I promised him all he asked. He thanked me effusively, and, when he had himself applied a compress of eau de Cologne to my chest, he shook hands and bid me adieu.
"By the way," I asked him, as I opened the door to let him go out, "tell me how it happened that you were there just in the nick of time to help me."
"I heard the gunshot," he replied in an embarrassed tone, "and I came out at once, fearing some mischance had happened to you."
He left me hastily, after he had again sworn me to secrecy.
In the morning a surgeon came to see me, sent no doubt by Don Ottavio. He prescribed a poultice, but asked no questions about the cause that had added violet marks to my white skin. People are very discreet in Rome, and I desired to conform to the customs of the country.
Several days passed by without my being able to talk freely with Don Ottavio. He was preoccupied and even more gloomy than usual; besides, he seemed to try to avoid my questionings. During the rare moments that I was alone with him he did not say a word about the strange inhabitants of the Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia. The day fixed for the ceremony of his ordination drew near, and I attributed his melancholy to his repugnance to the profession he was being forced to adopt.
I prepared to leave Rome for Florence. When I announced my departure to the Marquise Aldobrandi, Don Ottavio made some excuse to take me up to his room. When we reached it he took both my hands in his—
"My dear friend," he said, "if you will not grant me the favour I am going to ask you I shall certainly blow out my brains, for I see no other way out of my difficulties. I have quite made up my mind never to wear the wretched dress they want me to adopt. I want to escape out of this country. I ask you to take me with you, and to let me pass as your servant; it will only need one word added to your passport to facilitate my flight."
At first I tried to turn him from his design by speaking of the grief it would cause his mother; but, finding his resolution was firmly fixed, I ended by promising to take him with me, and to have my passport altered accordingly.
"That is not all," he said. "My departure still depends on the success of an enterprise on which I am engaged. You must set out the day after to-morrow; by then I may have succeeded, and then I shall be completely at your service."
"Are you so foolish," I asked uneasily, "as to get yourself entangled in some conspiracy?"
"No," he replied; "the matter is not quite of such grave importance as the fate of my country, but grave enough for my life and happiness to depend on the success of my undertaking. I cannot tell you any more now. In a couple of days you shall know everything."
I had begun to get used to mysteries, so I resigned myself to yet another. It was arranged that we should start at three o'clock in the morning, and that we should not break our journey until we reached Tuscan territory.
As I knew it would be useless to go to bed with such an early start in prospect, I employed the last evening of my stay in Rome in paying calls at all the houses where I had received hospitality. I went to take leave of the Marquise, and for form's sake I shook hands ceremoniously with her son. I felt his hand tremble in mine.
"At this moment my life is a game of pitch and toss," he whispered. "You will find a letter at your hotel from me. If I am not with you punctually at three o'clock, do not wait for me."
I was struck by the alteration in his features, but I attributed it to a very natural emotion on his part at leaving his family possibly for ever.
It was nearly one o'clock when I regained my lodgings. I felt a desire to walk along the Viccolo di Madama Lucrezia once more. Something white hung from the window which had been the scene of two such different visions. I approached it cautiously, and saw that it was a knotted rope. Was it an invitation to bid farewell to the Signora? It looked like it, and the temptation was strong. I did not yield to it, however, but recollected my promise to Don Ottavio; and also, it must be confessed, the disagreeable reception I had brought on myself some days ago by an act that was nothing like as bold.
I continued on my way slowly, for I was sorry to lose the last opportunity of penetrating the mysteries of No. 13. I turned my head at each step that I took, expecting every time to see some human being climb up or descend the cord. Nothing appeared, and at length I got to the far end of the lane, which led into the Corso.
"Farewell, Madam Lucrezia," I said, and I took off my hat to the house which I could still see. "Find out someone else, I beg you, to help you to avenge yourself on the jealous lover who keeps you imprisoned there."
It was striking two o'clock when I entered my hotel. A carriage loaded with luggage stood waiting in the yard. One of the hotel waiters gave me a letter; it was from Don Ottavio, and, as it looked a long one, I thought I had better take it up to my room to read, so I asked the waiter to light me upstairs.
"Monsieur," he said, "your servant, whom you told us was going to travel with you...."
"Well? Has he come?"
"He is at the inn, and will come with the horses."
"Monsieur, a lady came a little while ago and asked to speak to your servant. She absolutely insisted on going up to your room, Monsieur, and told me to tell your servant as soon as he came that Madam Lucrezia was in your room."
"In my room!" I cried, clutching hold of the bannister rail.
"Yes, Monsieur; and it looks as though she were going too, for she gave me a small box to put in the boot."
My heart beat loudly, and superstitious terror and curiosity possessed me in turn. I went up the stairs step by step. When I reached the first landing (my rooms were on the second floor), the waiter, who was in front of me, tripped, and the candle which he held in his hand was extinguished. He begged pardon profoundly, and went downstairs to relight it. I still climbed on.
I had my hand on the key of my room, but I hesitated. What fresh vision should I see? More than once, in the darkness, the story of the bleeding nun had returned to me. Was I possessed by a demon, even as was Don Alonso? The waiter seemed a terribly long time in coming.
I opened the door. Heaven have mercy on us! there was a light in my bedroom. I rapidly crossed the little sitting-room which came first, and a single glance sufficed to show me no one was in my bedroom; but immediately I heard light steps behind me, and the rustle of skirts. I believe my hair stood on end as I turned round suddenly.
A woman, dressed in white, her head covered with a black mantilla, rushed to me with outstretched arms.
"Here you are at last, my beloved!" she cried, as she seized my hands.
Hers were as cold as ice, and her features were as pale as death. I started back against the wall.
"Holy Mother! It is not he!... Oh, Monsieur, are you Don Ottavio's friend?"
At that name all was made clear. In spite of her pallor the young lady did not look like a ghost; she lowered her eyes, a thing ghosts never do, and held her hands clasped in a modest attitude before her girdle, which made me think that my friend Don Ottavio was not so much of a politician as I had imagined. In short, it was high time to take Lucrezia away; and, unfortunately, the role of confidant was the only one deputed to me in this adventure.
A moment after Don Ottavio arrived, disguised. The horses came too; and we set off. Lucrezia had no passport; but a woman, especially a pretty one, raises no suspicions. One gendarme, however, raised difficulties. I told him he was a hero, and had assuredly served under the great Napoleon. He acknowledged the fact, and I offered him a portrait of that great man on a golden coin, telling him that it was my habit to travel with a lady friend to keep me company; and that, as I very frequently changed them, I did not think it any use to put their names on my passport.
"This one," I added, "leaves me at the next town. I am told that I shall find many others there who could take her place."
"You would do wrong to change her," said the gendarme, as he respectfully shut the carriage door.
To tell you the truth, Madam, this rascal of a Don Ottavio had entered upon terms of friendship with a lovely young lady. She was the sister of a certain wealthy planter named Vanozzi, who earned a bad name for himself for being very stingy, and carrying on illicit trade. Don Ottavio knew very well that, even if his family had not intended him for the Church, they would never have consented to let him marry a girl so much lower in social position than himself.
Love is ingenious. The Abbé Negroni's pupil succeeded in holding a secret correspondence with his beloved. Every night he escaped from the Aldobrandi palace, and, as he had not dared to scale the walls of Vanozzi's house, the two lovers arranged to meet in Madam Lucrezia's house, which was protected by its ill-repute. A little door hidden by a fig tree communicated between the two gardens. They were young and in love, and Lucrezia and Ottavio did not complain of the paucity of furnishing, which consisted, as I think I have already pointed out, of an old leather-covered armchair.
One night, when waiting for Don Ottavio, Lucrezia mistook me for him, and made me the present which I received in his place. There was certainly some resemblance between Don Ottavio's figure and appearance and my own, and some scandal-mongers, who knew my father in Rome, maintained that there were reasons for this likeness. In course of time the accursed brother discovered their meetings; but his threats did not make Lucrezia reveal her seducer's name. We know how he took vengeance and how I was to pay their debt. It is needless to tell you how the two lovers took steps respectfully to set themselves free.
To conclude. We all three arrived at Florence. Don Ottavio married Lucrezia, and they left immediately for Paris. My father gave him as warm a welcome as I had received at the hands of the Marquise. He took upon him to bring about a reconciliation, and after a good deal of trouble he succeeded. The Marquis Aldobrandi was opportunely taken with Roman fever and died; so Ottavio inherited his title and fortune, and I became god-father to his firstborn.
27th April, 1846.
On the 21st of May, 18—, we returned to Tlemcen. The expedition had been a fortunate one: we brought back oxen, sheep, goats, prisoners and hostages.
After a thirty-seven days' campaign, or rather of incessant hunt, our horses were thin and lean-ribbed, but their eyes were still lively and full of fire; not one was saddle-galled. We men were bronzed by the sun, our hair was long, our cross-belts were dirty, and our waistcoats were worn to threads; we all presented that appearance of indifference to danger and hardship which characterises the true soldier.
What general would not have chosen our light cavalry for a battle-charge rather than the smartest of squadrons all decked out in new clothes.
Since morning I had thought of all the little pleasures that awaited me.
Now I should sleep in my iron bedstead, after having slept for thirty-seven nights on a square of oilcloth. I should sit on a chair to take my dinner, and should have as much soft bread and salt as I liked. Next I wondered to myself whether Mademoiselle Coucha would wear a pomegranate flower or jessamine in her hair, and if she had kept the vows made when I left; but, faithful or inconstant, I knew she could reckon on the great depth of tenderness that a man brings home from the wilds. There was not anyone in our squadron who had not made plans for the evening.
The colonel received us in a most fatherly manner, and even told us he was satisfied with us; then he took our commanding officer aside and for five minutes, and in low tones, communicated to him some not very agreeable intelligence, so far as we could judge from their expressions.
We noticed the movements of the colonel's moustaches, which rose up to his eyebrows, whilst those of the commandant fell, piteously out of curl, almost on to his breast. A young trooper, whom I pretended not to hear, maintained that the commandant's nose stretched as far as one could see; but very soon ours lengthened too, for the commandant came to tell us to "Go and feed your horses, and be ready to set off at sunset! The officers will dine with the colonel at five o'clock, in the open; the horses must be mounted after the coffee.... Is it possible that you are not pleased at this, gentlemen?..."
It did not suit us, and we saluted in silence, inwardly sending him to all the devils we could think of, and the colonel into the bargain.
We had very little time in which to make our small preparations. I hurried to change my dress, and, when I had done this, I was wise enough not to sit in my easy-chair, for fear I should fall asleep.
At five o'clock I went to the colonel's. He lived in a large Moorish house. I found the open court filled with French and natives, all crowding round a band of pilgrims or mountebanks who had come from the South.
An old man conducted the performance; he was as ugly as a monkey and half naked, under his burnous, which was full of holes. His skin was the colour of chocolate made of water; he was tattooed all over with scars; his hair was frizzy and so matted that from a distance one might have thought he had a bearskin cap on his head; and his beard was white and bristly.
He was reputed to be a great saint and a great wizard.
In front of him an orchestra, composed of two flutes and three tambourines, made an infernal din, worthy of the performance about to be played. He said that he had received complete sway over demons and wild beasts from a famous Mahomedan priest, and, after some compliments addressed to the colonel and the elite audience, he went off into a sort of prayer or incantation, accompanied by his orchestra, whilst the actors danced to his command, turned on one foot, and struck their breasts heavy blows with their fists.
Meanwhile the tambourines and flutes increased their din and played faster and faster.
When exhaustion and giddiness had made these people lose what few brains they had, the chief sorcerer drew several scorpions and serpents from some baskets round him, and, after showing that they were full of life, he threw them to his jesters, who fell upon them like dogs on a bone, and tore them to pieces with their teeth, if you please!
We looked down on this extraordinary spectacle from a high gallery; no doubt the colonel treated us to it to give us a good appetite for our dinner. As for myself, I turned my eyes away from these beasts, who disgusted me, and amused myself by staring at a pretty girl of thirteen or fourteen years of age, who had threaded through the crowd to get nearer to the performance.
She had the most beautiful eyes imaginable, and her hair fell on her shoulders in fine tresses; these ended in small pieces of silver, which made a tinkling sound as she moved her head gracefully about. She was dressed with more taste than most of the girls of that country; she had a kerchief of silk and gold on her head, a bodice of embroidered velvet, and short pantaloons of blue satin, showing her bare legs encircled with silver anklets. There was not a vestige of a veil over her face. Was she a Jewess or a heathen? or did she perhaps belong to those wandering tribes of unknown origin who never trouble themselves with religious prejudice?
Whilst I followed her every movement with so much interest, she had arrived at the first row of the circle where the fanatics carried on their exercises.
While she was trying to get still nearer she knocked over a narrow-bottomed basket that had not been opened. Almost at the same time the sorcerer and the child both uttered a terrible cry, and there was a great commotion in the ring, everyone recoiling with horror.
A very big snake had escaped from the basket and the little girl had trodden on it. In an instant the reptile had curled itself round her leg and I saw several drops of blood ooze from under the ring that she wore round her ankle. She fell down backwards, crying, and grinding her teeth, while her lips were covered with a white foam, and she rolled in the dust.
"Run! run, doctor!" I cried out to our surgeon-major; "for the love of Heaven save the poor child."
"Greenhorn!" the major replied, shrugging his shoulders. "Do you not see that it is part of the programme? Moreover, my trade is to cut off your arms and legs. It is the business of my confrère down below there to cure girls who are bitten by snakes."
In the meantime the old wizard had run up, and his first care was to possess himself of the snake.
"Djoûmane! Djoûmane!" he said to it in a tone of friendly reproach. The serpent uncoiled itself, quitted its prey, and started to crawl away. The sorcerer nimbly seized it by the end of its tail, and, holding it at arm's length, he went round the circle exhibiting the reptile, which bit and hissed without being able to stand erect.
You know that a snake held by his tail does not know in the least what to do with himself. He can only raise himself a quarter of his length, and cannot therefore bite the hand of the person who seizes him.
The next minute the serpent was put back in his basket and the lid firmly tied down. The magician then turned his attention to the little girl, who shrieked and kicked about all the time. He put a pinch of white powder, which he drew from his girdle, on the wound, and whispered an incantation in the child's ear, with unexpected results. The convulsions ceased; the little girl wiped her mouth, picked up her silk handkerchief, shook the dust off it, put it on her head again, rose up, and soon after went away.
Shortly after she came up to our gallery to collect money, and we fastened on her forehead and shoulders many fifty-centime coins.
This ended the performance, and we sat down to dinner.
I was very hungry, and was preparing to do justice to a splendid Tartary eel, when our doctor, by whom I sat, said that he recognised the snake of the preceding moment. That made it quite impossible for me to touch a mouthful.
After first making great fun of my fastidiousness the doctor annexed my share of the eel, and declared that snake tasted delicious.
"Those brutes you saw just now," he said to me, "are connoisseurs. They live in taverns with their serpents as the Troglodytes do; their girls are pretty—witness the little girl in blue knickerbockers. No one knows what their religion is, but they are a cunning lot, and I should like to make the acquaintance of their sheik."
We learnt during dinner why we were to recommence the campaign. Sidi-Lala, hotly pursued by Colonel R——, was trying to reach the mountains of Morocco.
There was choice of two routes: one to the south of Tlemcen, fording the Moulaïa, at the only place not rendered inaccessible by rocks; the other by the plain, to the north of our cantonment, where we should find our colonel and the bulk of the regiment.
Our squadron was ordered to stop him at the river crossing if he attempted it, but this was scarcely likely.
You know that the Moulaïa flows between two walls of rock, and there is but a single point like a kind of very narrow breach, where horses can ford it. I knew the place well, and I did not understand why a blockhouse had not been raised there before. At all events, the colonel had every chance of encountering the enemy, and we of making a useless journey.
Before the conclusion of dinner several orderlies from Maghzen had brought despatches from Colonel R——. The enemy had made a stand, and seemed to want to fight. They had lost time. Colonel R——'s infantry had come up and routed them.
But where had they escaped to? We knew nothing at all, and must decide which of the two routes to take. I have not mentioned the last resource that could be taken, viz. to drive them into the desert, where his herds and camp would very soon die of hunger and thirst. Signals were agreed upon to warn us of the enemy's movements.
Three cannon-shots from Tlemcen would tell us that Sidi-Lala was visible in the plain, and we should carry rockets with us in case we had to let them know that we needed reinforcements. In all probability the enemy could not show itself before daybreak, and our two columns had several hours' start. Night had fallen by the time we got to horse. I commanded the advance guard platoon. I felt tired and cold; I put on my cloak, turned up the collar, thrust my feet far into my stirrups, and rode quietly to my mare's long-striding walk, listening absently to quarter-master Wagner's stories about his love affairs, which unluckily ended by the flight of an infidel, who had run off with not only his heart, but a silver watch and a pair of new boots. I had heard this history before, and it appeared even longer than usual.
The moon rose as we started on our way. The sky was clear, but a light, white mist had come up since sundown, and skimmed the ground, which looked as though it were covered with down. On this white background, the moon threw long shadows, and everything took on a fantastic air. Very soon I thought I saw Arab mounted sentries. As I came nearer I found they were tamarisks in flower. Presently I stopped short, for I thought I heard the cannon-shot signal. Wagner told me it was the sound of a horse galloping.
We reached the fort and the commandant made his preparations.
The place was very easy to defend, and our squadron would have been sufficient to hold back a considerable force. Complete solitude reigned on the other side of the river.
After a pretty long wait, we heard the gallop of a horse, and soon an Arab came in sight mounted on a magnificent animal and riding towards us. By his straw hat crowned with ostrich plumes, and by his embroidered saddle from which hung a gebira ornamented with coral and chased with gold flowers, we recognised that he was a chief; our guide told us it was Sidi-Lala himself. He was a fine-looking and well-built young man, who managed his horse admirably. He put it at a gallop, threw his long gun up in the air and caught it again, shouting at us unintelligible terms of defiance.
The days of chivalry are over, and Wagner called for a gun to take the marabout down a peg, as he called it; but I objected, yet, so that it should not be said that the French refused to fight at close quarters with an Arab, I asked the commandant for leave to go through the ford and cross swords with Sidi-Lala. Permission was granted me, and I was soon over the river where the enemy's chief was trotting a little way off, and taking stock of things.
Directly he saw I was across he ran upon me and aimed with his gun.
"Take care!" cried Wagner.
I am rarely afraid of a horseman's shot, and, after the tricks he had just played with it, I thought that Sidi-Lala's gun could not be in a condition to fire. And in fact he pulled the trigger when he was only three paces from me, but the gun missed fire, as I had expected. Soon he turned his horse round so rapidly that instead of planting my sabre in his breast I only caught his floating burnous.
But I pressed him close, keeping him always on my right and beating him back, whether he was willing or not, towards the steep declivities which edged the river. He tried in vain to turn aside, but I pressed him closer and closer. After several moments of frantic effort, suddenly I saw his horse rear and the rider drew rein with both hands. Without stopping to ask myself why he made such a strange movement I was on him like a shot, and I pierced him with my blade, right in the centre of his back, my horse's hoof striking his left thigh at the same time. Man and horse disappeared, and my mare and I fell after them.
Without perceiving it we had reached the edge of a precipice and were hurled over it.... While I was yet in the air—so rapid is thought!—I remembered that the body of the Arab would break my fall. I could distinctly see under me a white burnous with a large red patch on it, and I should fall on it, head or tail.
It was not such a terrible leap as I feared, thanks to the water being high; I went in over head and ears and sputtered for an instant quite stunned, and I do not know quite how I found myself standing in the middle of the tall reeds at the river's edge.
I knew nothing of what had become of Sidi-Lala and the horses. I was dripping and shivering in the mud, between two walls of rock. I took a few steps forward, hoping to find a place where the declivity was less steep; but the further I advanced the more abrupt and inaccessible it looked.
Suddenly I heard above my head the sound of horses' hoofs and the jangling of sabres against stirrups and spurs; it was evidently our squadron. I wanted to cry out, but not a sound would come out of my throat; I must in my fall have broken in my ribs.
Imagine the situation I was in. I heard the voices of our men and recognised them, and I could not call them to my aid.
"If he had let me do that," old Wagner was saying, "he would have lived to be made colonel."
The sound soon lessened and died away, and I heard it no more.
Above my head hung a great branch, and I hoped by seizing this to hoist myself up above the banks of the river. With a desperate effort I sprang up, and ... crack!... the branch twisted and escaped from my hands with a frightful hissing.... It was an enormous snake....
I fell back into the water; the serpent glided between my legs and shot into the river, where it seemed to leave a trail of fire....
A moment later I had regained my sang-froid, and the fire-light had not disappeared: it still trembled on the water. I saw it was the reflection from a torch. A score of steps from me a woman was filling a pitcher at the river with one hand, and in the other she held a lighted piece of resined wood. She had no idea I was there; she placed the pitcher coolly upon her head and, torch in hand, disappeared among the rushes. I followed her and found I was at the entrance to a cave.
The woman advanced very quietly and mounted a very steep incline; it was a sort of staircase cut out of the face of an immense hall. By the torchlight I saw the threshold of this great hall, which did not quite reach the level of the river; but I could not judge of its full extent. Without quite knowing what I did, I entered the slope after the young woman who carried the torch, and followed her at a distance. Now and again her light disappeared behind some cavity of the rocks, but I soon found her again.
I thought I could make out, too, the gloomy opening's of great galleries leading into the principal room. It looked like a subterranean town with streets and squares. I stopped short, deeming it dangerous to venture alone into that vast labyrinth.
Suddenly one of the galleries below me was lit up brilliantly, and I saw a great number of torches, which appeared to come out of the sides of the rocks as though they formed a great procession. At the same time a monotonous chanting rose up, which recalled the singing of the Arabs as they recited their prayers. Soon I could distinguish a vast multitude advancing slowly. At their head stepped a black man, almost naked, his head covered with an enormous mass of stubbly hair. His white beard fell on his breast, and contrasted with the brown colour of his chest, which was gashed with bluish-tinted tattooing. I quickly recognised the sorcerer of the previous evening, and, soon after, saw the little girl near him who had played the part of Eurydice, with her fine eyes, and her silk pantaloons, and the embroidered handkerchief on her head.
Women and children and men of all ages followed them, all holding torches, all dressed in strange costumes of vivid colour, with trailing skirts and high caps, some made of metal, which reflected the light from the torches on all sides.
The old sorcerer stopped exactly below me, and the whole procession with him. The silence was profound. I was twenty feet above him, protected by great stones, from behind which I hoped to see everything without being perceived. At the feet of the old man I noticed a large slab of stone, almost round, with an iron ring in the centre.
He pronounced some words in a tongue unknown to me, which I felt sure was neither Arabic nor Kabylic. A rope and pulleys, hung from somewhere, fell at his feet; several of the assistants attached it to the ring, and at a given signal twenty stalwart arms all pulled at the stone simultaneously. It seemed of great weight, but they raised it and put it to one side.
I then saw what looked like the opening down a well, the water of which was at least a yard from the top. Water, did I say? I do not know what the frightful liquid was; it was covered over with an iridescent film, disturbed and broken in places, and showing a hideous black mud beneath.
The sorcerer stood in the midst of the gathered crowd, near the kerbstone which surrounded the well, his left hand on the little girl's head; with his right he made strange gestures, whilst uttering a kind of incantation.
From time to time he raised his voice as though he were calling someone. "Djoumâne! Djoumâne!" he cried; but no one came. None the less he went on making raucous cries which did not seem to come from a human throat, and rolled his eyes and ground his teeth. The mummeries of this old rascal incensed and filled me with indignation; I felt tempted to hurl a stone at his head that I had ready to hand. When he had yelled the name of Djoumâne for the thirtieth time or more, I saw the iridescent film over the well shake, and at this sign the whole crowd flung itself back; the old man and the little girl alone remained by the side of the hole.
Suddenly there was a great bubbling of the bluish mud from the well, and out of this mud came the head of an enormous snake, of livid grey colour, with phosphorescent eyes....
Involuntarily I leapt backwards. I heard a little cry and the sound of some heavy body falling into the water....
When perhaps a tenth of a second later I again looked below, I saw the sorcerer stood alone by the well-side; the water was still bubbling, and in the middle of what remained of the iridescent scum there floated the kerchief which had covered the little girl's hair....
Already the stone was being moved, and it glided into its place over the aperture of the horrible gulf. Then all the torches were simultaneously extinguished, and I remained in darkness in the midst of such a profound silence that I could distinctly hear my own heart beat....
When I had recovered a little from this ghastly scene I wanted to quit the cavern, vowing that if I succeeded in rejoining my comrades, I would return to exterminate the abominable denizens of those quarters, men and serpents.
But the pressing question was how to find my way out. I had come, I believed, a hundred feet into the cave, keeping the rock wall on my right.
I turned half round, but saw no light which might indicate the entrance to the cavern; furthermore, it did not extend in a straight line, and, besides, I had climbed up all the time from the river's edge. I groped along the rock with my left hand, and sounded the ground with the sword which I held in my right, advancing slowly and cautiously. For a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes ... possibly for half an hour, I walked without being able to find the way I came in.
I was seized with apprehension. Had I entered unconsciously some side gallery instead of returning the way I had at first taken?...
I went on all the time groping along the rock, when in place of the cold stone I felt a curtain, which yielded to my touch and let out a ray of light. Redoubling my precaution, I drew the curtain noiselessly aside and found myself in a little passage which led to a well-lighted room. The door was open, and I saw that the room was hung with silk tapestry, embroidered with flowers and gold. I noticed a Turkey carpet and the end of a velvet-covered divan. On the carpet was a narghile of silver and several perfume-burners. In short, it was an apartment sumptuously furnished in Arabian taste.
I approached with stealthy tread till I reached the door; a young woman squatted on the divan, and near her was a little low table of inlaid wood, which held a large silver-gilt tray full of cups and flagons and bouquets of flowers.
On entering this subterranean boudoir I felt quite intoxicated by the most exquisite perfume.
Everything in this retreat breathed voluptuousness; on every side I saw the glitter of gold and sumptuous materials, and varied colourings and rare flowers. The young woman did not notice me at first; she held her head down and lingered the yellow amber beads of a long necklace, absorbed in meditation. She was divinely beautiful. Her features were like those of the unfortunate child I had seen below, but more finely formed, more regular and more voluptuous. She was as black as a raven's wing, and her hair was
"Long as are the robes of a king."
It fell over her shoulders to the divan and almost to the carpet under her feet. A gown of transparent silk in broad stripes showed her splendid arms and neck. A bodice of velvet braided with gold enclosed her figure, and her short blue satin knickerbockers revealed a marvellously tiny foot, from which hung a gold-worked Turkish slipper which she danced up and down gracefully and whimsically.
My boots creaked, and she raised her head and saw me.
Without being disturbed or showing the least surprise at seeing a stranger with a sword in his hand in her room, she clapped her hands gleefully and beckoned me to come nearer. I saluted her by placing my hand first on my heart and then on my head to show her I was acquainted with Mahomedan etiquette. She smiled, and with both hands she put aside her hair which covered the divan—this was to tell me to take a seat by her side. I thought all the spices of Araby pervaded those beautiful locks.
I modestly seated myself at the extreme end of the divan, inwardly vowing I would very soon go much nearer to her. She took a cup from the tray, and holding it by the filigree saucer, she poured out some frothed coffee, and after touching it lightly with her lips she offered it to me.
"Ah, Roumi! Roumi!..." she said. "Shall we not kill the vermin, lieutenant?..."
At these words I opened my eyes as wide as a carriage entrance. This young lady had enormous moustaches, and was the living image of Quartermaster Wagner.... And it was indeed Wagner who stood over me with a cup of coffee, whilst, pillowed on my horse's neck, I stared at him wildly.
"It appears we have pioncé, all the same, lieutenant. We are at the ford, and the coffee is boiling."