White Lies by Charles Reade
This very day was the anniversary of the baron's death.
The baroness kept her room all the morning, and took no nourishment but one cup of spurious coffee Rose brought her. Towards evening she came down-stairs. In the hall she found two chaplets of flowers; they were always placed there for her on this sad day. She took them in her hand, and went into the little oratory that was in the park; there she found two wax candles burning, and two fresh chaplets hung up. Her daughters had been there before her.
She knelt and prayed many hours for her husband's soul; then she rose and hung up one chaplet and came slowly away with the other in her hand. At the gate of the park, Josephine met her with tender anxiety in her sapphire eyes, and wreathed her arms round her, and whispered, "But you have your children still."
The baroness kissed her and they came towards the house together, the baroness leaning gently on her daughter's elbow.
Between the park and the angle of the chateau was a small plot of turf called at Beaurepaire the Pleasance, a name that had descended along with other traditions; and in the centre of this Pleasance, or Pleasaunce, stood a wonderful oak-tree. Its circumference was thirty-four feet. The baroness came to this ancient tree, and hung her chaplet on a mutilated limb called the "knights' bough."
The sun was setting tranquil and red; a broad ruby streak lingered on the deep green leaves of the prodigious oak. The baroness looked at it awhile in silence.
Then she spoke slowly to it and said, "You were here before us: you will be here when we are gone."
A spasm crossed Josephine's face, but she said nothing at the time. And so they went in together.
Now as this tree was a feat of nature, and, above all, played a curious part in our story, I will ask you to stay a few minutes and look at it, while I say what was known about it; not the thousandth part of what it could have told, if trees could speak as well as breathe.
The baroness did not exaggerate; the tree was far older than even this ancient family. They possessed among other archives a manuscript written by a monk, a son of the house, about four hundred years before our story, and containing many of the oral traditions about this tree that had come down to him from remote antiquity. According to this authority, the first Baron of Beaurepaire had pitched his tent under a fair oak-tree that stood prope rivum, near a brook. His grandson built a square tower hard by, and dug a moat that enclosed both tree and tower, and received the waters of the brook aforesaid.
At this time the tree seems only to have been remarked for its height. But, a century and a half before the monk wrote, it had become famous in all the district for its girth, and in the monk's own day had ceased to grow; but not begun to decay. The mutilated arm I have mentioned was once a long sturdy bough, worn smooth as velvet in one part from a curious cause: it ran about as high above the ground as a full-sized horse, and the knights and squires used to be forever vaulting upon it, the former in armor; the monk, when a boy, had seen them do it a thousand times. This bough broke in two, A.D. 1617: but the mutilated limb was still called the knights' bough, nobody knew why. So do names survive their ideas.
What had not this tree seen since first it came green and tender as a cabbage above the soil, and stood at the mercy of the first hare or rabbit that should choose to cut short its frail existence!
Since then eagles had perched on its crown, and wild boars fed without fear of man upon its acorns. Troubadours had sung beneath it to lords and ladies seated round, or walking on the grass and commenting the minstrel's tales of love by exchange of amorous glances. Mediaeval sculptors had taken its leaves, and wisely trusting to nature, had adorned churches with those leaves cut in stone.
It had seen a Norman duke conquer England, and English kings invade France and be crowned at Paris. It had seen a girl put knights to the rout, and seen the warrior virgin burned by envious priests with common consent both of the curs she had defended and the curs she had defeated.
Why, in its old age it had seen the rise of printing, and the first dawn of national civilization in Europe. It flourished and decayed in France; but it sprung in Gaul. And more remarkable still, though by all accounts it may see the world to an end, it was a tree in ancient history: its old age awaits the millennium; its first youth belonged to that great tract of time which includes the birth of Christ, the building of Rome, and the siege of Troy.
The tree had, ere this, mingled in the fortunes of the family. It had saved their lives and taken their lives. One lord of Beaurepaire, hotly pursued by his feudal enemies, made for the tree, and hid himself partly by a great bough, partly by the thick screen of leaves. The foe darted in, made sure he had taken to the house, ransacked it, and got into the cellar, where by good-luck was a store of Malvoisie: and so the oak and the vine saved the quaking baron. Another lord of Beaurepaire, besieged in his castle, was shot dead on the ramparts by a cross-bowman who had secreted himself unobserved in this tree a little before the dawn.
A young heir of Beaurepaire, climbing for a raven's nest to the top of this tree, lost his footing and fell, and died at its foot: and his mother in her anguish bade them cut down the tree that had killed her boy. But the baron her husband refused, and spake in this wise: "ytte ys eneugh that I lose mine sonne, I will nat alsoe lose mine Tre." In the male you see the sober sentiment of the proprietor outweighed the temporary irritation of the parent. Then the mother bought fifteen ells of black velvet, and stretched a pall from the knights' bough across the west side to another branch, and cursed the hand that should remove it, and she herself "wolde never passe the Tre neither going nor coming, but went still about." And when she died and should have been carried past the tree to the park, her dochter did cry from a window to the bearers, "Goe about! goe about!" and they went about, and all the company. And in time the velvet pall rotted, and was torn and driven away by the winds: and when the hand of Nature, and no human hand, had thus flouted and dispersed the trappings of the mother's grief, two pieces were picked up and preserved among the family relics: but the black velvet had turned a rusty red.
So the baroness did nothing new in this family when she hung her chaplet on the knights' bough; and, in fact, on the west side, about eighteen feet from the ground, there still mouldered one corner of an Atchievement an heir of Beaurepaire had nailed there two centuries before, when his predecessor died: "For," said he, "the chateau is of yesterday, but the tree has seen us all come and go." The inside of the oak was hollow as a drum; and on its east side yawned a fissure as high as a man and as broad as a street-door. Dard used to wheel his wheelbarrow into the tree at a trot, and there leave it.
Yet in spite of excavation and mutilation not life only but vigor dwelt in this wooden shell. The extreme ends of the longer boughs were firewood, touchwood, and the crown was gone this many a year: but narrow the circle a very little to where the indomitable trunk could still shoot sap from its cruse deep in earth, and there on every side burst the green foliage in its season countless as the sand. The leaves carved centuries ago from these very models, though cut in stone, were most of them mouldered, blunted, notched, deformed: but the delicate types came back with every summer, perfect and lovely as when the tree was but their elder brother: and greener than ever: for, from what cause nature only knows, the leaves were many shades richer than any other tree could show for a hundred miles round; a deep green, fiery, yet soft; and then their multitude--the staircases of foliage as you looked up the tree, and could scarce catch a glimpse of the sky. An inverted abyss of color, a mound, a dome, of flake emeralds that quivered in the golden air.
And now the sun sets; the green leaves are black; the moon rises: her cold light shoots across one half that giant stem.
How solemn and calm stands the great round tower of living wood, half ebony, half silver, with its mighty cloud above of flake jet leaves tipped with frosty fire!
Now is the still hour to repeat in a whisper the words of the dame of Beaurepaire, "You were here before us: you will be here when we are gone."
We leave the hoary king of trees standing in the moonlight, calmly defying time, and follow the creatures of a day; for, what they were, we are.
A spacious saloon panelled; dead but showy white picked out sparingly with gold. Festoons of fruits and flowers finely carved in wood on some of the panels. These also not smothered in gilding, but as it were gold speckled here and there, like tongues of flame winding among insoluble snow. Ranged against the walls were sofas and chairs covered with rich stuffs well worn. And in one little distant corner of the long room a gray-haired gentleman and two young ladies sat round a small plain table, on which burned a solitary candle; and a little way apart in this candle's twilight an old lady sat in an easy-chair, thinking of the past, scarce daring to inquire the future. Josephine and Rose were working: not fancy- work but needle-work; Dr. Aubertin writing. Every now and then he put the one candle nearer the girls. They raised no objection: only a few minutes after a white hand would glide from one or other of them like a serpent, and smoothly convey the light nearer to the doctor's manuscript.
"Is it not supper-time?" he inquired. "I have an inward monitor; and I think our dinner was more ethereal than usual."
"Hush!" said Josephine, and looked uneasily towards her mother. "Wax is so dear."
"Wax?--ah!--pardon me:" and the doctor returned hastily to his work. But Rose looked up and said, "I wonder Jacintha does not come; it is certainly past the hour;" and she pried into the room as if she expected to see Jacintha on the road. But she saw in fact very little of anything, for the spacious room was impenetrable to her eye; midway from the candle to the distant door its twilight deepened, and all became shapeless and sombre. The prospect ended sharp and black, as in those out-o'-door closets imagined and painted by a certain great painter, whose Nature comes to a full stop as soon as he has no further commercial need of her, instead of melting by fine expanse and exquisite gradation into genuine distance, as nature does in Claude and in nature. To reverse the picture, if you stood at the door you looked across forty feet of black, and the little corner seemed on fire, and the fair heads about the candle shone like the St. Cecilias and Madonnas in an antique stained-glass window.
At last the door opened, and another candle fired Jacintha's comely peasant face in the doorway. She put down her candle outside the door, and started as crow flies for the other light. After glowing a moment in the doorway she dived into the shadow and emerged into light again close to the table with napkins on her arm. She removed the work-box reverentially, the doctor's manuscript unceremoniously, and proceeded to lay a cloth: in which operation she looked at Rose a point-blank glance of admiration: then she placed the napkins; and in this process she again cast a strange look of interest upon Rose. The young lady noticed it this time, and looked inquiringly at her in return, half expecting some communication; but Jacintha lowered her eyes and bustled about the table. Then Rose spoke to her with a sort of instinct of curiosity, on the chance of drawing her out.
"Supper is late to-night, is it not, Jacintha?"
"Yes, mademoiselle; I have had more cooking than usual," and with this she delivered another point-blank look as before, and dived into the palpable obscure, and came to light in the doorway.
Her return was anxiously expected; for, if the truth must be told, they were very hungry. So rigorous was the economy in this decayed but honorable house that the wax candles burned to-day in the oratory had scrimped their dinner, unsubstantial as it was wont to be. Think of that, you in fustian jackets who grumble after meat. The door opened, Jacintha reappeared in the light of her candle a moment with a tray in both hands, and, approaching, was lost to view; but a strange and fragrant smell heralded her. All their eyes turned with curiosity towards the unwonted odor, and Jacintha dawned with three roast partridges on a dish.
They were wonder-struck, and looked from the birds to her in mute surprise, that was not diminished by a certain cynical indifference she put on. She avoided their eyes, and forcibly excluded from her face everything that could imply she did not serve up partridges to this family every night of her life.
"The supper is served, madame," said she, with a respectful courtesy and a mechanical tone, and, plunging into the night, swam out at her own candle, shut the door, and, unlocking her face that moment, burst out radiant, and so to the kitchen, and, with a tear in her eye, set-to and polished all the copper stewpans with a vigor and expedition unknown to the new-fangled domestic.
"Partridges, mamma! What next?"
"Pheasants, I hope," cried the doctor, gayly. "And after them hares; to conclude with royal venison. Permit me, ladies." And he set himself to carve with zeal.
Now nature is nature, and two pair of violet eyes brightened and dwelt on the fragrant and delicate food with demure desire; for all that, when Aubertin offered Josephine a wing, she declined it. "No partridge?" cried the savant, in utter amazement.
"Not to-day, dear friend; it is not a feast day to-day."
"Ah! no; what was I thinking of?"
"But you are not to be deprived," put in Josephine, anxiously. "We will not deny ourselves the pleasure of seeing you eat some."
"What!" remonstrated Aubertin, "am I not one of you?"
The baroness had attended to every word of this. She rose from her chair, and said quietly, "Both you and he and Rose will be so good as to let me see you eat."
"But, mamma," remonstrated Josephine and Rose in one breath.
"Je le veux," was the cold reply.
These were words the baroness uttered so seldom that they were little likely to be disputed.
The doctor carved and helped the young ladies and himself.
When they had all eaten a little, a discussion was observed to be going on between Rose and her sister. At last Aubertin caught these words, "It will be in vain; even you have not influence enough for that, Rose."
"We shall see," was the reply, and Rose put the wing of a partridge on a plate and rose calmly from her chair. She took the plate and put it on a little work-table by her mother's side. The others pretended to be all mouths, but they were all ears. The baroness looked in Rose's face with an air of wonder that was not very encouraging. Then, as Rose said nothing, she raised her aristocratic hand with a courteous but decided gesture of refusal.
Undaunted Rose laid her palm softly on the baroness's shoulder, and said to her as firmly as the baroness herself had just spoken,--
"Il le veut."
The baroness was staggered. Then she looked with moist eyes at the fair young face, then she reflected. At last she said, with an exquisite mixture of politeness and affection, "It is his daughter who has told me 'Il le veut.' I obey."
Rose returning like a victorious knight from the lists, saucily exultant, and with only one wet eyelash, was solemnly kissed and petted by Josephine and the doctor.
Thus they loved one another in this great, old, falling house. Their familiarity had no coarse side; a form, not of custom but affection, it went hand-in-hand with courtesy by day and night.
The love of the daughters for their mother had all the tenderness, subtlety, and unselfishness of womanly natures, together with a certain characteristic of the female character. And whither that one defect led them, and by what gradations, it may be worth the reader's while to observe.
The baroness retired to rest early; and she was no sooner gone than Josephine leaned over to Rose, and told her what their mother had said to the oak-tree. Rose heard this with anxiety; hitherto they had carefully concealed from their mother that the government claimed the right of selling the chateau to pay the creditors, etc.; and now both sisters feared the old lady had discovered it somehow, or why that strange thing she had said to the oak-tree? But Dr. Aubertin caught their remarks, and laid down his immortal MS. on French insects, to express his hope that they were putting a forced interpretation on the baroness's words.
"I think," said he, "she merely meant how short-lived are we all compared with this ancient oak. I should be very sorry to adopt the other interpretation; for if she knows she can at any moment be expelled from Beaurepaire, it will be almost as bad for her as the calamity itself; that, I think, would kill her."
"Why so?" said Rose, eagerly. "What is this house or that? Mamma will still have her daughters' love, go where she will."
Aubertin replied, "It is idle to deceive ourselves; at her age men and women hang to life by their habits; take her away from her chateau, from the little oratory where she prays every day for the departed, from her place in the sun on the south terrace, and from all the memories that surround her here; she would soon pine, and die."
Here the savant seeing a hobby-horse near, caught him and jumped on. He launched into a treatise upon the vitality of human beings, and proved that it is the mind which keeps the body of a man alive for so great a length of time as fourscore years; for that he had in the earlier part of his studies carefully dissected a multitude of animals,--frogs, rabbits, dogs, men, horses, sheep, squirrels, foxes, cats, etc.,--and discovered no peculiarity in man's organs to account for his singular longevity, except in the brain or organ of mind. Thence he went to the longevity of men with contented minds, and the rapid decay of the careworn. Finally he succeeded in convincing them the baroness was so constituted, physically and mentally, that she would never move from Beaurepaire except into her grave. However, having thus terrified them, he proceeded to console them. "You have a friend," said he, "a powerful friend; and here in my pocket--somewhere--is a letter that proves it."
The letter was from Mr. Perrin the notary. It appeared by it that Dr. Aubertin had reminded the said Perrin of his obligations to the late baron, and entreated him to use all his influence to keep the estate in this ancient family.
Perrin had replied at first in a few civil lines; but his present letter was a long and friendly one. It made both the daughters of Beaurepaire shudder at the peril they had so narrowly escaped. For by it they now learned for the first time that one Jaques Bonard, a small farmer, to whom they owed but five thousand francs, had gone to the mayor and insisted, as he had a perfect right, on the estate being put up to public auction. This had come to Perrin's ears just in time, and he had instantly bought Bonard's debt, and stopped the auction; not, however, before the very bills were printed; for which he, Perrin, had paid, and now forwarded the receipt. He concluded by saying that the government agent was personally inert, and would never move a step in the matter unless driven by a creditor.
"But we have so many," said Rose in dismay. "We are not safe a day."
Aubertin assured her the danger was only in appearance. "Your large creditors are men of property, and such men let their funds lie unless compelled to move them. The small mortgagee, the petty miser, who has, perhaps, no investment to watch but one small loan, about which he is as anxious and as noisy as a hen with one chicken, he is the clamorous creditor, the harsh little egoist, who for fear of risking a crown piece would bring the Garden of Eden to the hammer. Now we are rid of that little wretch, Bonard, and have Perrin on our side; so there is literally nothing to fear."
The sisters thanked him warmly, and Rose shared his hopes; and said so; but Josephine was silent and thoughtful. Nothing more worth recording passed that night. But the next day was the first of May, Josephine's birthday.
Now they always celebrated this day as well as they could; and used to plant a tree, for one thing. Dard, well spurred by Jacintha, had got a little acacia; and they were all out in the Pleasaunce to plant it. Unhappily, they were a preposterous time making up their feminine minds where to have it set; so Dard turned rusty and said the park was the best place for it. There it could do no harm, stick it where you would.
"And who told you to put in your word?" inquired Jacintha. "You're here to dig the hole where mademoiselle chooses; not to argufy."
Josephine whispered Rose, "I admire the energy of her character. Could she be induced to order once for all where the poor thing is to be planted?"
"Then where will you have it, mademoiselle?" asked Dard, sulkily.
"Here, I think, Dard," said Josephine sweetly.
Dard grinned malignantly, and drove in his spade. "It will never be much bigger than a stinging nettle," thought he, "for the roots of the oak have sucked every atom of heart out of this." His black soul exulted secretly.
Jacintha stood by Dard, inspecting his work; the sisters intertwined, a few feet from him. The baroness turned aside, and went to look for a moment at the chaplet she had placed yesterday on the oak-tree bough. Presently she uttered a slight ejaculation; and her daughters looked up directly.
"Come here, children," said she. They glided to her in a moment; and found her eyes fixed upon an object that lay on the knights' bough.
It was a sparkling purse.
I dare say you have noticed that the bark on the boughs of these very ancient trees is as deeply furrowed as the very stem of an oak tree that boasts but a few centuries; and in one of these deep furrows lay a green silk purse with gold coins glittering through the glossy meshes.
Josephine and Rose eyed it a moment like startled deer; then Rose pounced on it. "Oh, how heavy!" she cried. This brought up Dard and Jacintha, in time to see Rose pour ten shining gold pieces out of the purse into her pink-white palm, while her face flushed and her eyes glittered with excitement. Jacintha gave a scream of joy; "Our luck is turned," she cried, superstitiously. Meanwhile, Josephine had found a slip of paper close to the purse. She opened it with nimble fingers; it contained one line in a hand like that of a copying clerk: From a friend: In part payment of a great debt.
Keen, piquant curiosity now took the place of surprise. Who could it be? The baroness's suspicion fell at once on Dr. Aubertin. But Rose maintained he had not ten gold pieces in the world. The baroness appealed to Josephine. She only blushed in an extraordinary way, and said nothing. They puzzled, and puzzled, and were as much in the dark as ever, when lo! one of the suspected parties delivered himself into the hands of justice with ludicrous simplicity. It happened to be Dr. Aubertin's hour of out-a-door study; and he came mooning along, buried in a book, and walked slowly into the group--started, made a slight apology, and was mooning off, lost in his book again. Then the baroness, who had eyed him with grim suspicion all the time, said with well-affected nonchalance, "Doctor, you dropped your purse; we have just picked it up." And she handed it to him. "Thank you, madame," said he, and took it quietly without looking at it, put it in his pocket, and retired, with his soul in his book. They stared comically at one another, and at this cool hand. "It's no more his than it's mine," said Jacintha, bluntly. Rose darted after the absorbed student, and took him captive. "Now, doctor," she cried, "be pleased to come out of the clouds." And with the word she whipped the purse out of his coat pocket, and holding it right up before his eye, insisted on his telling her whether that was his purse or not, money and all. Thus adjured, he disowned the property mighty coolly, for a retired physician, who had just pocketed it.
"No, my dear," said he; "and, now I think of it, I have not carried a purse this twenty years."
The baroness, as a last resource, appealed to his honor whether he had not left a purse and paper on the knights' bough. The question had to be explained by Josephine, and then the doctor surprised them all by being rather affronted--for once in his life.
"Baroness," said he, "I have been your friend and pensioner nearly twenty years; if by some strange chance money were to come into my hands, I should not play you a childish trick like this. What! have I not the right to come to you, and say, 'My old friend, here I bring you back a very small part of all I owe you?'"
"What geese we are," remarked Rose. "Dear doctor, you tell us who it is."
Dr. Aubertin reflected a single moment; then said he could make a shrewd guess.
"Who? who? who?" cried the whole party.
"Perrin the notary."
It was the baroness's turn to be surprised; for there was nothing romantic about Perrin the notary. Aubertin, however, let her know that he was in private communication with the said Perrin, and this was not the first friendly act the good notary had done her in secret.
While he was converting the baroness to his view, Josephine and Rose exchanged a signal, and slipped away round an angle of the chateau.
"Who is it?" said Rose.
"It is some one who has a delicate mind."
"Clearly, and therefore not a notary."
"Rose, dear, might it not be some person who has done us some wrong, and is perhaps penitent?"
"Certainly; one of our tenants, or creditors, you mean; but then, the paper says 'a friend.' Stay, it says a debtor. Why a debtor? Down with enigmas!"
"Rose, love," said Josephine, coaxingly, "think of some one that might--since it is not the doctor, nor Monsieur Perrin, might it not be--for after all, he would naturally be ashamed to appear before me."
"Before you? Who do you mean?" asked Rose nervously, catching a glimpse now.
"He who once pretended to love me."
"Josephine, you love that man still."
"No, no. Spare me!"
"You love him just the same as ever. Oh, it is wonderful; it is terrible; the power he has over you; over your judgment as well as your heart."
"No! for I believe he has forgotten my very name; don't you think so?"
"Dear Josephine, can you doubt it? Come, you do doubt it."
"But why? for what reason?"
"Because of what he said to me as we parted at that gate; the words and the voice seem still to ring like truth across the weary years. He said, 'I am to join the army of the Pyrenees, so fatal to our troops; but say to me what you never yet have said, Camille, I love you: and I swear I will come back alive.' So then I said to him, 'I love you,'--and he never came back."
"How could he come here? a deserter, a traitor!"
"It is not true; it is not in his nature; inconstancy may be. Tell me that he never really loved me, and I will believe you; but not that he is a traitor. Let me weep over my past love, not blush for it."
"Past? You love him to-day as you did three years ago."
"No," said Josephine, "no; I love no one. I never shall love any one again."
"But him. It is that love which turns your heart against others. Oh, yes, you love him, dearest, or why should you fancy our secret benefactor could be that Camille?"
"Why? Because I was mad: because it is impossible; but I see my folly. I am going in."
"What! don't you care to know who I think it was, perhaps?"
"No," said Josephine sadly and doggedly; she added with cold nonchalance, "I dare say time will show." And she went slowly in, her hand to her head.
"Her birthday!" sighed Rose.
The donor, whoever he was, little knew the pain he was inflicting on this distressed but proud family, or the hard battle that ensued between their necessities and their delicacy. The ten gold pieces were a perpetual temptation: a daily conflict. The words that accompanied the donation offered a bait. Their pride and dignity declined it; but these bright bits of gold cost them many a sharp pang. You must know that Josephine and Rose had worn out their mourning by this time; and were obliged to have recourse to gayer materials that lay in their great wardrobes, and were older, but less worn. A few of these gold pieces would have enabled the poor girls to be neat, and yet to mourn their father openly. And it went through and through those tender, simple hearts, to think that they must be disunited, even in so small a thing as dress; that while their mother remained in her weeds, they must seem no longer to share her woe.
The baroness knew their feeling, and felt its piety, and yet could not bow her dignity to say, "Take five of these bits of gold, and let us all look what we are--one." Yet in this, as in everything else, they supported each other. They resisted, they struggled, and with a wrench they conquered day by day. At last, by general consent, Josephine locked up the tempter, and they looked at it no more. But the little bit of paper met a kinder fate. Rose made a little frame for it, and it was kept in a drawer, in the salon: and often looked at and blessed. Just when they despaired of human friendship, this paper with the sacred word "friend" written on it, had fallen all in a moment on their aching hearts.
They could not tell whence it came, this blessed word.
But men dispute whence comes the dew?
Then let us go with the poets, who say it comes from heaven.
And even so that sweet word, friend, dropped like the dew from heaven on these afflicted ones.
So they locked the potent gold away from themselves, and took the kind slip of paper to their hearts.
The others left off guessing: Aubertin had it all his own way: he upheld Perrin as their silent benefactor, and bade them all observe that the worthy notary had never visited the chateau openly since the day the purse was left there. "Guilty conscience," said Aubertin dryly.
One day in his walks he met a gaunt figure ambling on a fat pony: he stopped him, and, holding up his finger, said abruptly, "We have found you out, Maitre Perrin."
The notary changed color.
"Oh, never be ashamed," said Aubertin; "a good action done slyly is none the less a good action."
The notary wore a puzzled air.
Aubertin admired his histrionic powers in calling up this look.
"Come, come, don't overdo it," said he. "Well, well; they cannot profit by your liberality; but you will be rewarded in a better world, take my word for that."
The notary muttered indistinctly. He was a man of moderate desires; would have been quite content if there had been no other world in perspective. He had studied this one, and made it pay: did not desire a better; sometimes feared a worse.
"Ah!" said Aubertin, "I see how it is; we do not like to hear ourselves praised, do we? When shall we see you at the chateau?"
"I propose to call on the baroness the moment I have good news to bring," replied Perrin; and to avoid any more compliments spurred the dun pony suddenly; and he waddled away.
Now this Perrin was at that moment on the way to dine with a character who plays a considerable part in the tale--Commandant Raynal. Perrin had made himself useful to the commandant, and had become his legal adviser. And, this very day after dinner, the commandant having done a good day's work permitted himself a little sentiment over the bottle, and to a man he thought his friend. He let out that he had a heap of money he did not know what to do with, and almost hated it now his mother was gone and could not share it.
The man of law consoled him with oleaginous phrases: told him he very much underrated the power of money. His hoard, directed by a judicious adviser, would make him a landed proprietor, and the husband of some young lady, all beauty, virtue, and accomplishment, whose soothing influence would soon heal the sorrow caused by an excess of filial sentiment.
"Halt!" shouted Raynal: "say that again in half the words."
Perrin was nettled, for he prided himself on his colloquial style.
"You can buy a fine estate and a chaste wife with the money," snapped this smooth personage, substituting curt brutality for honeyed prolixity.
The soldier was struck by the propositions the moment they flew at him small and solid, like bullets.
"I've no time," said he, "to be running after women. But the estate I'll certainly have, because you can get that for me without my troubling my head."
"Is it a commission, then?" asked the other sharply.
"Of course. Do you think I speak for the sake of talking?"
And so Perrin received formal instructions to look out for a landed estate; and he was to receive a handsome commission as agent.
Now to settle this affair, and pocket a handsome percentage for himself, he had only to say "Beaurepaire."
Well, he didn't. Never mentioned the place; nor the fact that it was for sale.
Such are all our agents, when rival speculators. Mind that. Still it is a terrible thing to be so completely in the power of any man of the world, as from this hour Beaurepaire was in the power of Perrin the notary.