White Lies by Charles Reade
It was a fair morning in June: the sky was a bright, deep, lovely, speckless blue: the flowers and bushes poured perfume, and sprinkled song upon the balmy air. On such a day, so calm, so warm, so bright, so scented, so tuneful, to live and to be young is to be happy. With gentle hand it wipes all other days out of the memory; it smiles, it smells, it sings, and clouds and rain and biting wind seem as far off and impossible as grief and trouble.
Camille and Josephine had stolen out, and strolled lazily up and down close under the house, drinking the sweet air, fragrant with perfume and melody; the blue sky, and love.
Rose was in the house. She had missed them; but she thought they must be near; for they seldom took long walks early in the day. Meeting Jacintha on the landing of the great staircase, she asked her where her sister was.
"Madame Raynal is gone for a walk. She has taken the colonel with her. You know she always takes the colonel out with her now."
"That will do. You can finish your work."
Jacintha went into Camille's room.
Rose, who had looked as grave as a judge while Jacintha was present, bubbled into laughter. She even repeated Jacintha's words aloud, and chuckled over them. "You know she always takes the colonel out with her now--ha, ha, ha!"
"Rose!" sighed a distant voice.
She looked round, and saw the baroness at some distance in the corridor, coming slowly towards her, with eyes bent gloomily on the ground. Rose composed her features into a settled gravity, and went to meet her.
"I wish to speak with you," said the baroness; "let us sit down; it is cool here."
Rose ran and brought a seat without a back, but well stuffed, and set it against the wall. The old lady sat down and leaned back, and looked at Rose in silence a good while; then she said,--
"There is room for you; sit down, for I want to speak seriously to you."
"Yes, mamma; what is it?"
"Turn a little round, and let me see your face."
Rose complied; and began to feel a little uneasy.
"Perhaps you can guess what I am going to say to you?"
"I have no idea."
"Well, I am going to put a question to you."
"With all my heart, dear mamma."
"I invite you to explain to me the most singular, the most unaccountable thing that ever fell under my notice. Will you do this for your mother?"
"O mamma! of course I will do anything to please you that I can; but, indeed, I don't know what you mean."
"I am going to tell you."
The old lady paused. The young one, naturally enough, felt a chill of vague anxiety strike across her frame.
"Rose," said the old lady, speaking very gently but firmly, and leaning in a peculiar way on her words, while her eye worked like an ice gimlet on her daughter's face, "a little while ago, when my poor Raynal--our benefactor--was alive--and I was happy--you all chilled my happiness by your gloom: the whole house seemed a house of mourning--tell me now why was this."
"Mamma!" said Rose, after a moment's hesitation, "we could hardly be gay. Sickness in the house! And if Colonel Raynal was alive, still he was absent, and in danger."
"Oh! then it was out of regard for him we were all dispirited?"
"Why, I suppose so," said Rose, stoutly; but then colored high at her own want of candor. However, she congratulated herself that her mother's suspicion was confined to past events.
Her self-congratulation on that score was short; for the baroness, after eying her grimly for a second or two in silence, put her this awkward question plump.
"If so, tell me why is it that ever since that black day when the news of his death reached us, the whole house has gone into black, and has gone out of mourning?"
"Mamma," stammered Rose, "what do you mean?"
"Even poor Camille, who was so pale and wan, has recovered like magic."
"O mamma! is not that fancy?" said Rose, piteously. "Of what do you suspect me? Can you think I am unfeeling--ungrateful? I should not be your daughter."
"No, no," said the baroness, "to do you justice, you attempt sorrow; as you put on black. But, my poor child, you do it with so little skill that one sees a horrible gayety breaking through that thin disguise: you are no true mourners: you are like the mutes or the undertakers at a funeral, forced grief on the surface of your faces, and frightful complacency below."
"Tra la! lal! la! la! Tra la! la! Tra la! la!" carolled Jacintha, in the colonel's room hard by.
The ladies looked at one another: Rose in great confusion.
"Tra la! la! la! Tra lal! lal! la! la! la!"
"Jacintha!" screamed Rose angrily.
"Hush! not a word," said the baroness. "Why remonstrate with her? Servants are but chameleons: they take the color of those they serve. Do not cry. I wanted your confidence, not your tears, love. There, I will not twice in one day ask you for your heart: it would be to lower the mother, and give the daughter the pain of refusing it, and the regret, sure to come one day, of having refused it. I will discover the meaning of it all by myself." She went away with a gentle sigh; and Rose was cut to the heart by her words; she resolved, whatever it might cost her and Josephine, to make a clean breast this very day. As she was one of those who act promptly, she went instantly in search of her sister, to gain her consent, if possible.
Now, the said Josephine was in the garden walking with Camille, and uttering a wife's tender solicitudes.
"And must you leave me? must you risk your life again so soon; the life on which mine depends?"
"My dear, that letter I received from headquarters two days ago, that inquiry whether my wound was cured. A hint, Josephine--a hint too broad for any soldier not to take."
"Camille, you are very proud," said Josephine, with an accent of reproach, and a look of approval.
"I am obliged to be. I am the husband of the proudest woman in France."
"Hush! not so loud: there is Dard on the grass."
"Dard!" muttered the soldier with a word of meaning. "Josephine," said he after a pause, and a little peevishly, "how much longer are we to lower our voices, and turn away our eyes from each other, and be ashamed of our happiness?"
"Five months longer, is it not?" answered Josephine quietly.
"Five months longer!"
Josephine was hurt at this, and for once was betrayed into a serious and merited remonstrance.
"Is this just?" said she. "Think of two months ago: yes, but two months ago, you were dying. You doubted my love, because it could not overcome my virtue and my gratitude: yet you might have seen it was destroying my life. Poor Raynal, my husband, my benefactor, died. Then I could do more for you, if not with delicacy, at least with honor; but no! words, and looks, and tender offices of love were not enough, I must give stronger proof. Dear Camille, I have been reared in a strict school: and perhaps none of your sex can know what it cost me to go to Frejus that day with him I love."
"My own Josephine!"
"I made but one condition: that you would not rob me of my mother's respect: to her our hasty marriage would appear monstrous, heartless. You consented to be secretly happy for six months. One fortnight has passed, and you are discontented again."
"Oh, no! do not think so. It is every word true. I am an ungrateful villain."
"How dare you say so? and to me! No! but you are a man."
"So I have been told; but my conduct to you, sweet one, has not been that of a man from first to last. Yet I could die for you, with a smile on my lips. But when I think that once I lifted this sacrilegious hand against your life--oh!"
"Do not be silly, Camille. I love you all the better for loving me well enough to kill me. What woman would not? I tell you, you foolish thing, you are a man: monseigneur is one of the lordly sex, that is accustomed to have everything its own way. My love, in a world that is full of misery, here are two that are condemned to be secretly happy a few months longer: a hard fate for one of your sex, it seems: but it is so much sweeter than the usual lot of mine, that really I cannot share your misery," and she smiled joyously.
"Then share my happiness, my dear wife."
"I do; only mine is deep, not loud."
"Why, Dard is gone, and we are out of doors; will the little birds betray us?"
"The lower windows are open, and I saw Jacintha in one of the rooms."
"Jacintha? we are in awe of the very servants. Well, if I must not say it loud I will say it often," and putting his mouth to her ear, he poured a burning whisper of love into it--"My love! my angel! my wife! my wife! my wife!"
She turned her swimming eyes on him.
"My husband!" she whispered in return.
Rose came out, and found them billing and cooing. "You must not be so happy, you two," said she authoritatively.
"How can we help it?" asked Camille.
"You must and shall help it, somehow," retorted this little tyrant. "Mamma suspects. She has given me such a cross-examination, my blood runs cold. No, on second thoughts, kiss her again, and you may both be as happy as you like; for I am going to tell mamma all, and no power on earth shall hinder me."
"Rose," said Camille, "you are a sensible girl; and I always said so."
But Josephine was horrified. "What! tell my mother that within a month of my husband's death?"--
"Don't say your husband," put in Camille wincing; "the priest never confirmed that union; words spoken before a magistrate do not make a marriage in the sight of Heaven."
Josephine cut him short. "Amongst honorable men and women all oaths are alike sacred: and Heaven's eye is in a magistrate's room as in a church. A daughter of Beaurepaire gave her hand to him, and called herself his wife. Therefore, she was his wife: and is his widow. She owes him everything; the house you are all living in among the rest. She ought to be proud of her brief connection with that pure, heroic spirit, and, when she is so little noble as to disown him, then say that gratitude and justice have no longer a place among mankind."
"Come into the chapel," said Camille, with a voice that showed he was hurt.
They entered the chapel, and there they saw something that thoroughly surprised them: a marble monument to the memory of Raynal. It leaned at present against the wall below the place prepared to receive it. The inscription, short, but emphatic, and full of feeling, told of the battles he had fought in, including the last fatal skirmish, and his marriage with the heiress of Beaurepaire; and, in a few soldier-like words, the uprightness, simplicity, and generosity of his character.
They were so touched by this unexpected trait in Camille that they both threw their arms round his neck by one impulse. "Am I wrong to be proud of him?" said Josephine, triumphantly.
"Well, don't say too much to me," said Camille, looking down confused. "One tries to be good; but it is very hard--to some of us--not to you, Josephine; and, after all, it is only the truth that we have written on that stone. Poor Raynal! he was my old comrade; he saved me from death, and not a soldier's death--drowning; and he was a better man than I am, or ever shall be. Now he is dead, I can say these things. If I had said them when he was alive, it would have been more to my credit."
They all three went back towards the house; and on the way Rose told them all that had passed between the baroness and her. When she came to the actual details of that conversation, to the words, and looks, and tones, Josephine's uneasiness rose to an overpowering height; she even admitted that further concealment would be very difficult.
"Better tell her than let her find out," said Rose. "We must tell her some day."
At last, after a long and agitated discussion, Josephine consented; but Rose must be the one to tell. "So then, you at least will make your peace with mamma," argued Josephine, "and let us go in and do this before our courage fails; besides, it is going to rain, and it has turned cold. Where have all these clouds come from? An hour ago there was not one in the sky."
They went, with hesitating steps and guilty looks, to the saloon. Their mother was not there. Here was a reprieve.
Rose had an idea. She would take her to the chapel, and show her the monument, and that would please her with poor Camille. "After that," said Rose, "I will begin by telling her all the misery you have both gone through; and, when she pities you, then I will show her it was all my fault your misery ended in a secret marriage."
The confederates sat there in a chilly state, waiting for the baroness. At last, as she did not come, Rose got up to go to her. "When the mind is made up, it is no use being cowardly, and putting off," said she, firmly. For all that, her cheek had but little color left in it, when she left her chair with this resolve.
Now as Rose went down the long saloon to carry out their united resolve, Jacintha looked in; and, after a hasty glance to see who was present, she waited till Rose came up to her, and then whipped a letter from under her apron and gave it her.
"For my mistress," said she, with an air of mystery.
"Why not take it to her, then?" inquired Rose.
"I thought you might like to see it first, mademoiselle," said Jacintha, with quiet meaning.
"Is it from the dear doctor?" asked Josephine.
"La, no, mademoiselle, don't you know the doctor is come home? Why, he has been in the house near an hour. He is with my lady."
The doctor proved Jacintha correct by entering the room in person soon after; on this Rose threw down the letter, and she and the whole party were instantly occupied in greeting him.
When the ladies had embraced him and Camille shaken hands with him, they plied him with a thousand questions. Indeed, he had not half satisfied their curiosity, when Rose happened to catch sight of the letter again, and took it up to carry to the baroness. She now, for the first time, eyed it attentively, and the consequence was she uttered an exclamation, and took the first opportunity to beckon Aubertin.
He came to her; and she put the letter into his hand.
He put up his glasses, and eyed it. "Yes!" whispered he, "it is from him."
Josephine and Camille saw something was going on; they joined the other two, with curiosity in their faces.
Rose put her hand on a small table near her, and leaned a moment. She turned half sick at a letter coming from the dead. Josephine now came towards her with a face of concern, and asked what was the matter.
The reply came from Aubertin. "My poor friends," said he, solemnly, "this is one of those fearful things that you have not seen in your short lives, but it has been more than once my lot to witness it. The ships that carry letters from distant countries vary greatly in speed, and are subject to detaining accidents. Yes, this is the third time I have seen a letter come written by a hand known to be cold. The baroness is a little excited to-day, I don't know from what cause. With your approbation, Madame Raynal, I will read this letter before I let her see it."
"Read it, if you please."
"Shall I read it out?"
"Certainly. There may be some wish expressed in it; oh, I hope there is!"
Camille, from delicacy, retired to some little distance, and the doctor read the letter in a low and solemn voice.
"My dear Mother,--I hope all are well at Beaurepaire, as I am, or I hope soon to be. I received a wound in our last skirmish; not a very severe one; but it put an end to my writing for some time."
"Poor fellow! it was his death wound. Why, when was this written?-- why," and the doctor paused, and seemed stupefied: "why, my dears, has my memory gone, or"--and again he looked eagerly at the letter-- "what was the date of the battle in which he was killed? for this letter is dated the 15th of May. Is it a dream? no! this was written since the date of his death."
"No, doctor," said Rose, "you deceive yourself."
"Why, what was the date of the Moniteur, then?" asked Aubertin, in great agitation.
"Considerably later than this," said Camille.
"I don't think so; the journal! where is it?"
"My mother has it locked up. I'll run."
"No, Rose; no one but me. Now, Josephine, do not you go and give way to hopes that may be delusive. I must see that journal directly. I will go to the baroness. I shall excuse her less than you would."
He was scarcely gone when a cry of horror filled the room, a cry as of madness falling like a thunderbolt on a human mind. It was Josephine, who up to this had not uttered one word. But now she stood, white as a corpse, in the middle of the room, and wrung her hands. "What have I done? What shall I do? It was the 3d of May. I see it before me in letters of fire; the 3d of May! the 3d of May!--and he writes the 15th."
"No! no!" cried Camille wildly. "It was long, long after time 3d."
"It was the 3d of May," repeated Josephine in a hoarse voice that none would have known for hers.
Camille ran to her with words of comfort and hope; he did not share her fears. He remembered about when the Moniteur came, though not the very day. He threw his arm lovingly round her as if to protect her against these shadowy terrors. Her dilating eyes seemed fixed on something distant in space or time, at some horrible thing coming slowly towards her. She did not see Camille approach her, but the moment she felt him she turned upon him swiftly.
"Do you love me?" still in the hoarse voice that had so little in it of Josephine. "I mean, does one grain of respect or virtue mingle in your love for me?"
"What words are these, my wife?"
"Then leave Raynal's house upon the instant. You wonder I can be so cruel? I wonder too; and that I can see my duty so clear in one short moment. But I have lived twenty years since that letter came. Oh! my brain has whirled through a thousand agonies. And I have come back a thousand times to the same thing; you and I must see each other's face no more."
"Oh!" cried Rose, "is there no way but this?"
"Take care," she screamed, wildly, to her and Camille, "I am on the verge of madness; is it for you two to thrust me over the precipice? Come, now, if you are a man of honor, if you have a spark of gratitude towards the poor woman who has given you all except her fair name--that she will take to the grave in spite of you all-- promise that you will leave Raynal's house this minute if he is alive, and let me die in honor as I have lived."
"No, no!" cried Camille, terror-stricken; "it cannot be. Heaven is merciful, and Heaven sees how happy we are. Be calm! these are idle fears; be calm! I say. For if it is so I will obey you. I will stay; I will go; I will die; I will live; I will obey you."
"Swear this to me by the thing you hold most sacred," she almost shrieked.
"I swear by my love for you," was his touching reply.
Ere they had recovered a miserable composure after this passionate outburst, all the more terrible as coming from a creature so tender as Josephine, agitated voices were heard at the door, and the baroness tottered in, followed by the doctor, who was trying in vain to put some bounds to her emotion and her hopes.
"Oh, my children! my children!" cried she, trembling violently. "Here, Rose, my hands shake so; take this key, open the cabinet, there is the Moniteur. What is the date?"
The journal was found, and rapidly examined. The date was the 20th of May.
"There!" cried Camille. "I told you!"
The baroness uttered a feeble moan. Her hopes died as suddenly as they had been born, and she sank drooping into a chair, with a bitter sigh.
Camille stole a joyful look at Josephine. She was in the same attitude looking straight before her as at a coming horror. Presently Rose uttered a faint cry, "The battle was before."
"To be sure," cried the doctor. "You forget, it is not the date of the paper we want, but of the battle it records. For Heaven's sake, when was the battle?"
"The 3d of May," said Josephine, in a voice that seemed to come from the tomb.
Rose's hands that held the journal fell like a dead weight upon her knees, journal and all. She whispered, "It was the 3d of May."
"Ah!" cried the baroness, starting up, "he may yet be alive. He must be alive. Heaven is merciful! Heaven would not take my son from me, a poor old woman who has not long to live. There was a letter; where is the letter?"
"Are we mad, not to read the letter?" said the doctor. "I had it; it has dropped from my old fingers when I went for the journal."
A short examination of the room showed the letter lying crumpled up near the door. Camille gave it to the baroness. She tried to read it, but could not.
"I am old," said she; "my hand shakes and my eyes are troubled. This young gentleman will read it to us. His eyes are not dim and troubled. Something tells me that when I hear this letter, I shall find out whether my son lives. Why do you not read it to me, Camille?" cried she, almost fiercely.
Camille, thus pressed, obeyed mechanically, and began to read Raynal's letter aloud, scarce knowing what he did, but urged and driven by the baroness.
"My dear Mother,--I hope all are well at Beaurepaire, as I am, or I hope soon to be. I received a wound in our last skirmish; not a very severe one, but it put an end to my writing for some time."
"Go on, dear Camille! go on."
"The page ends there, madame,"
The paper was thin, and Camille, whose hand trembled, had some difficulty in detaching the leaves from one another. He succeeded, however, at last, and went on reading and writhing.
"By the way, you must address your next letter to me as Colonel Raynal. I was promoted just before this last affair, but had not time to tell you; and my wound stopped my writing till now."
"There, there!" cried the baroness. "He was Colonel Raynal, and Colonel Raynal was not killed."
The doctor implored her not to interrupt.
"Go on, Camille. Why do you hesitate? what is the matter? Do for pity's sake go on, sir."
Camille cast a look of agony around, and put his hand to his brow, on which large drops of cold perspiration, like a death dew, were gathering; but driven to the stake on all sides, he gasped on rather than read, for his eye had gone down the page.
"A namesake of mine, Commandant Raynal,"--
"has not been--so fortunate. He"--
"Go on! go on!"
The wretched man could now scarcely utter Raynal's words; they came from him in a choking groan.
"he was killed, poor fellow! while heading a gallant charge upon the enemy's flank."
He ground the letter convulsively in his hand, then it fell all crumpled on the floor.
"Bless you, Camille!" cried the baroness, "bless you! bless you! I have a son still."
She stooped with difficulty, took up the letter, and, kissing it again and again, fell on her knees, and thanked Heaven aloud before them all. Then she rose and went hastily out, and her voice was heard crying very loud, "Jacintha! Jacintha!"
The doctor followed in considerable anxiety for the effects of this violent joy on so aged a person. Three remained behind, panting and pale like those to whom dead Lazarus burst the tomb, and came forth in a moment, at a word. Then Camille half kneeled, half fell, at Josephine's feet, and, in a voice choked with sobs, bade her dispose of him.
She turned her head away. "Do not speak to me; do not look at me; if we look at one another, we are lost. Go! die at your post, and I at mine."
He bowed his head, and kissed her dress, then rose calm as despair, and white as death, and, with his knees knocking under him, tottered away like a corpse set moving.
He disappeared from the house.
The baroness soon came back, triumphant and gay.
"I have sent her to bid them ring the bells in the village. The poor shall be feasted; all shall share our joy: my son was dead, and lives. Oh, joy! joy! joy!"
"Mother!" shrieked Josephine.
"Mad woman that I am, I am too boisterous. Help me, Rose! she is going to faint; her lips are white."
Dr. Aubertin and Rose brought a chair. They forced Josephine into it. She was not the least faint; yet her body obeyed their hands just like a dead body. The baroness melted into tears; tears streamed from Rose's eyes. Josephine's were dry and stony, and fixed on coming horror. The baroness looked at her with anxiety. "Thoughtless old woman! It was too sudden; it is too much for my dear child; too much for me," and she kneeled, and laid her aged head on her daughter's bosom, saying feebly through her tears, "too much joy, too much joy!"
Josephine took no notice of her. She sat like one turned to stone looking far away over her mother's head with rigid eyes fixed on the air and on coming horrors.
Rose felt her arm seized. It was Aubertin. He too was pale now, though not before. He spoke in a terrible whisper to Rose, his eye fixed on the woman of stone that sat there.
"Is this joy?"
Rose, by a mighty effort, raised her eyes and confronted his full. "What else should it be?" said she.
And with these words this Spartan girl was her sister's champion once more against all comers, friend or foe.