MoboReader > Literature > Captain Fracasse

   Chapter 15 VALLOMBREUSE

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 49085

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Isabelle sat for a long time perfectly motionless in her luxurious chamber, sunk in a sad reverie, apparently entirely oblivious of the glow of light, warmth, and comfort that closed her in-glancing up occasionally at the portrait over the chimney-piece, which seemed to be smiling down upon her and promising her protection and peace, while it more than ever reminded her of some dear face she had known and loved long ago. After a time, however, her mood changed. She grew restless, and rising, began to wander aimlessly about the room; but her uneasiness only increased, and finally, in desperation, she resolved to venture out into the corridor and look about her, no matter at what risk. Anything would be better than this enforced inactivity and suspense. She tried the door with a trembling hand, dreading to find herself locked in, but it was not fastened, and seeing that all was dark outside, she took up a small lamp, that had been left burning on a side table, and boldly setting forth, went softly down the long flight of stairs, in the hope of finding some means of exit from the chateau on the lower floor. At the foot of the stairs she came to a large double door, one leaf of which yielded easily when she timidly tried to open it, but creaked dolefully as it turned on its hinges. She hesitated for a moment, fearing that the noise would alarm the servants and bring them out to see what was amiss; but no one came, and taking fresh courage, she moved on and passed into a lofty, vaulted hall, with high-backed, oaken benches ranged against the tapestry-covered walls, upon which hung several large trophies of arms, and sundry swords, shields, and steel gauntlets, which caught and flashed back the light from her lamp as she held it up to examine them. The air was heavy, chilly, and damp. An awful stillness reigned in this deserted hall. Isabelle shivered as she crept slowly along, and nearly stumbled against a huge table, with massive carved feet, that stood in the centre of the tesselated marble pavement. She was making for a door, opposite the one by which she had entered; but, as she approached it, was horror-stricken when she perceived two tall men, clad in armour, standing like sentinels, one on either side of it. She stopped short, then tried to turn and fly, but was so paralyzed with terror that she could not stir, expecting every instant that they would pounce upon her and take her prisoner, while she bitterly repented her temerity in having ventured to leave her own room, and vainly wished herself back by the quiet fireside there. Meanwhile the two dread figures stood as motionless as herself-the silence was unbroken, and "the beating of her own heart was the only sound she heard." So at last she plucked up courage to look more closely at the grim sentinels, and could not help smiling at her own needless alarm, when she found that they were suits of armour, indeed, but without men inside of them-just such as one sees standing about in the ancient royal palaces of France. Passing them with a saucy glance of defiance, and a little triumphant toss of the head, Isabelle entered a vast dining room, with tall, sculptured buffets, on which stood many superb vessels of gold and silver, together with delicate specimens of exquisite Venetian and Bohemian glass, and precious pieces of fine porcelain, fit for a king's table. Large handsome chairs, with carved backs, were standing round the great dining-table, and the walls, above the heavy oaken wainscot, were hung with richly embossed Cordova leather, glowing with warm, bright tints and golden arabesques.

She did not linger to examine and admire all the beautified things dimly revealed to her by the feeble light of her small lamp, but hurried on to the third door, which opened into an apartment yet more spacious and magnificent than the other two. At one end of it was a lordly dais, raised three steps above the inlaid floor, upon which stood a splendid great arm-chair, almost a throne, under a canopy emblazoned with a brilliant coat of arms and surmounted by a tuft of nodding plumes. Still hurrying on, Isabelle next entered a sumptuous bed-chamber, and, as she paused for an instant to hold up her lamp and look about her, fancied that she could hear the regular breathing of a sleeper in the immense bed, behind the crimson silk curtains which were closely drawn around it. She did not dare to stop and investigate the matter, but flew on her way, as lightly as any bird, and next found herself in a library, where the white busts surmounting the well-filled book-cases stared down at her with their hard, stony eyes, and made her shudder as she nervously sought for an exit, without delaying one moment to glance at the great variety of curious and beautiful objects scattered lavishly about, which, under any ordinary circumstances, would have held her enthralled.

Running at right angles with the library, and opening out of it, was the picture gallery, where the family portraits were arranged in chronological order on one side, while opposite to them was a long row of windows, looking into the court. The shutters were closed, but near the top of each one was a small circular opening, through which the moon shone and faintly lighted the dusky gallery, striking here and there directly upon the face of a portrait, with an indescribably weird and startling effect. It required all of Isabelle's really heroic courage to keep on past the long line of strange faces, looking down mockingly it seemed to her from their proud height upon her trembling form as she glided swiftly by, and she was thankful to find, at the end of the gallery, a glass door opening out upon the court. It was not fastened, and after carefully placing her lamp in a sheltered corner, where no draughts could reach it, she stepped out under the stars. It was a relief to find herself breathing freely in the fresh, pure air, though she was actually no less a prisoner than before, and as she stood looking up into the clear evening sky, and thinking of her own true lover, she seemed to feel new courage and hope springing up in her heart.

In one corner of the court she saw a strong light shining out through the crevices in the shutters that closed several low windows, and heard sounds of revelry from the same direction-the only signs of life she had detected about the whole place. Her curiosity was excited by them, and she stole softly over towards the quarter from whence they came, keeping carefully in the shadow of the wall, and glancing anxiously about to make sure that no one was furtively watching her. Finding a considerable aperture in one of the wooden shutters she peeped through it, and saw a party of men gathered around a table, eating and drinking and making merry in a very noisy fashion. The light from a lamp with three burners, which was suspended by a copper chain from the low ceiling, fell full upon them, and although she had only seen them masked before, Isabelle instantly recognised those who had been concerned in her abduction. At the head of the table sat Malartic, whose extraordinary face was paler and nose redder than ever, and at sight of whom the young girl shuddered and drew back. When she had recovered herself a little, she looked in again upon the repulsive scene, and was surprised to see, at the other end of the table, and somewhat apart from the others, Agostino, the brigand, who had now laid aside the long white beard in which he had played the part of the old blind beggar so successfully. A great deal of loud talking was going on, constantly interrupted by bursts of laughter, but Isabelle could not hear distinctly enough through the closed window to make out what they were saying. Even if she had been actually in the room with them, she would have found much of their conversation incomprehensible, as it was largely made up of the extraordinary slang of the Paris street Arabs and rascals generally. From time to time one or the other of the participants in this orgy seemed to propose a toast, whereupon they would all clink their glasses together before raising them to their lips, drain them at a draught, and applaud vociferously, while there was a constant drawing of corks and placing of fresh bottles on the table by the servant who was waiting upon them. Just as Isabelle, thoroughly disgusted with the brutality of the scene before her, was about to turn away, Malartic rapped loudly on the table to obtain a hearing, and after making a proposition, which met with ready and cordial assent, rose from his seat, cleared his throat, and began to sing, or rather shout, a ribald song, all the others joining in the chorus, with horrible grimaces and gesticulations, which so frightened poor Isabelle that she could scarcely find strength to creep away from the loathsome spectacle.

Before re-entering the house she went to look at the drawbridge, with a faint hope that she might chance upon some unexpected means of escape, but all was secure there, and a little postern, opening on the moat, which she discovered near by, was also carefully fastened, with bolts and bars strong enough to keep out an army. As these seemed to be the only means of exit from the chateau, she felt that she was a prisoner indeed, and understood why it had not been deemed necessary to lock any of the inner doors against her. She walked slowly back to the gallery, entered it by the glass door, found her lamp burning tranquilly just where she had left it, retraced her steps swiftly through the long suite of spacious apartments already described and flew up the grand staircase to her own room, congratulating herself upon not having been detected in her wanderings. She put her lamp down in the antechamber, but paused in terror on the threshold of the inner room, stifling a shriek that had nearly escaped her as she caught sight of a strange, wild figure crouching on the hearth. But her fears were short-lived, for with an exclamation of delight the intruder sprang towards her and she saw that it was Chiquita-but Chiquita in boy's clothes.

"Have you got the knife yet?" said the strange little creature abruptly to Isabelle-"the knife with three bonny red marks."

"Yes, Chiquita, I have it here in my bosom," she replied. "But why do you ask? Is my life in danger?"

"A knife," said the child with fierce, sparkling eyes, "a knife is a faithful friend and servant; it never betrays or fails its master, if he is careful to give it a drink now and then, for a knife is often thirsty you know."

"You frighten me, you naughty child!" exclaimed Isabelle, much troubled and agitated by these sinister, extravagant words, which perhaps, she thought, might be intended as a friendly warning.

"Sharpen the edge on the marble of the chimney-piece, like this," continued Chiquita, "and polish the blade on the sole of your shoe."

"Why do you tell me all this?" cried Isabelle, turning very pale.

"For nothing in particular, only he who would defend himself gets his weapons ready-that's all."

These odd, fierce phrases greatly alarmed Isabelle, yet Chiquita's presence in her room was a wonderful relief and comfort to her. The child apparently cherished a warm and sincere affection for her, which was none the less genuine because of its having arisen from such a trivial incident-for the pearl beads were more precious than diamonds to Chiquita. She had given a voluntary promise to Isabelle never to kill or harm her, and with her strange, wild, yet exalted notions of honour she looked upon it as a solemn obligation and vow, by which she must always abide-for there was a certain savage nobility in Chiquita's character, and she could be faithful unto death. Isabelle was the only human being, excepting Agostino, who had been kind to her. She had smiled upon the unkempt child, and given her the coveted necklace, and Chiquita loved her for it, while she adored her beauty. Isabelle's sweet countenance, so angelically mild and pure, exercised a wonderful influence over the neglected little savage, who had always been surrounded by fierce, haggard faces, expressive of every evil passion, and disfigured by indulgence in the lowest vices, and excesses of every kind.

"But how does it happen that you are here, Chiquita?" asked Isabelle, after a short silence. "Were you sent to keep guard over me?"

"No, I came alone and of my own accord," answered Chiquita, "because I saw the light and fire. I was tired of lying all cramped up in a corner, and keeping quiet, while those beastly men drank bottle after bottle of wine, and gorged themselves with the good things set before them. I am so little, you know, so young and slender, that they pay no more attention to me than they would to a kitten asleep under the table. While they were making a great noise I slipped quietly away unperceived. The smell of the wine and the food sickened me. I am used to the sweet perfume of the heather, and the pure resinous odour of the pines. I cannot breathe in such an atmosphere as there is down below there."

"And you were not afraid to wander alone, without a light, through the long, dark corridors, and the lonely, deserted rooms?"

"Chiquita does not know what it is to be afraid-her eyes can see in the dark, and her feet never stumble. The very owls shut their eyes when they meet her, and the bats fold their wings when she comes near their haunts. Wandering ghosts stand aside to let her pass, or turn back when they see her approaching. Night is her comrade and hides no secrets from her, and Chiquita never betrays them to the day."

Her eyes flashed and dilated as she spoke, and Isabelle looked at her with growing wonder, not unmixed with a vague sensation of fear.

"I like much better to stay here, in this heavenly quiet, by the fire with you," continued the child, "than down there in all the uproar. You are so beautiful that I love to look at you-you are like the Blessed Virgin that I have seen shining above the altar. Only from afar though, for they always chase me out of the churches with the dogs, because I am so shabby and forlorn. How white your hand is! Mine looks like a monkey's paw beside it-and your hair is as fine and soft as silk, while mine is all rough and tangled. Oh! I am so horribly ugly-you must think so too."

"No, my dear child," Isabelle replied, touched by her naive expressions of affection and admiration, "I do not think so. You have beauty too-you only need to make yourself neat and clean to be as pretty a little girl as one would wish to see."

"Do you really think so? Are you telling me true? I would steal fine clothes if they would make me pretty, for then Agostino would love me."

This idea brought a little flush of colour to her thin brown cheeks, and for a few minutes she seemed lost in a pleasant reverie.

"Do you know where we are?" asked Isabelle, when Chiquita looked up at her again.

"In a chateau that belongs to the great seignior who has so much money, and who wanted to carry you off at Poitiers. I had only to draw the bolt and it would have been done then. But you gave me the pearl necklace, and I love you, and I would not do anything you did not like."

"Yet you have helped to carry me off this time," said Isabelle reproachfully. "Is it because you don't love me any more that you have given me up to my enemies?"

"Agostino ordered me, and I had to obey; besides, some other child could have played guide to the blind man as well as I, and then I could not have come into the chateau with you, do you see?-here I may be able to do something to help you. I am brave, active and strong, though I am so small, and quick as lightning too-and I shall not let anybody harm you."

"Is this chateau very far from Paris?" asked Isabelle, drawing Chiquita up on her lap. "Did you hear any one mention the name of this place?"

"Yes, one of them called it-now what was it?" said the child, looking up at the ceiling and absently scratching her head, as if to stimulate her memory.

"Try to remember it, my child!" said Isabelle, softly stroking Chiquita's brown cheeks, which flushed with delight at the unwonted caress-no one had ever petted the poor child in her life before.

"I think that it was Val-lom-breuse," said Chiquita at last, pronouncing the syllables separately and slowly, as if listening to an inward echo. "Yes, Vallombreuse, I am sure of it now. It is the name of the seignior that your Captain Fracasse wounded in a duel-he would have done much better if he had killed him outright-saved a great deal of trouble to himself and to you. He is very wicked, that rich duke, though he does throw his gold about so freely by the handfuls-just like a man sowing grain. You hate him, don't you? and you would be glad if you could get away from him, eh?"

"Oh yes, indeed!" cried Isabelle impetuously. "But alas! it is impossible-a deep moat runs all around this chateau the drawbridge is up, the postern securely fastened-there is no way of escape."

"Chiquita laughs at bolts and bars, at high walls and deep moats. Chiquita can get out of the best guarded prison whenever she pleases, and fly away to the moon, right before the eyes of her astonished jailer. If you choose, before the sun rises your Captain Fracasse shall know where the treasure that he seeks is hidden."

Isabelle was afraid, when she heard these incoherent phrases, that the child was not quite sane, but her little face was so calm, her dark eyes so clear and steady, her voice so earnest, and she spoke with such an air of quiet conviction, that the supposition was not admissible, and the strange little creature did seem to be possessed of some of the magic powers she claimed. As if to convince Isabelle that she was not merely boasting, she continued, "Let me think a moment, to make a plan-don't speak nor move, for the least sound interferes with me-I must listen to the spirit."

Chiquita bent down her head, put her hand over her eyes, and remained for several minutes perfectly motionless; then she raised her head and without a word went and opened the window, clambered up on the sill, and gazed out intently into the darkness.

"Is she really going to take flight?" said Isabelle to herself, as she anxiously watched Chiquita's movements, not knowing what to expect. Exactly opposite to the window, on the other side of the moat, was an immense tree, very high and old, whose great branches, spreading out horizontally, overhung the water; but the longest of them did not reach the wall of the chateau by at least ten feet. It was upon this tree, however, that Chiquita's plan for escape depended. She turned away from the window, drew from her pocket a long cord made of horse-hair, very fine and strong, which she carefully unrolled to its full length and laid upon the floor; then produced from another pocket an iron hook, which she fastened securely to the cord. This done to her satisfaction, she went to the window again, and threw the end of the cord with the hook into the branches of the tree. The first time she was unsuccessful; the iron hook fell and struck against the stone wall beneath the casement; but at the second attempt the hook caught and held, and Chiquita, drawing the cord taut, asked Isabelle to take hold of it and bear her whole weight on it, until the branch was bent as far as possible towards the chateau-coming five or six feet nearer to the window where they were. Then Chiquita tied the cord firmly to the ornamental iron railing of the tiny balcony, with a knot that could not slip, climbed over, and grasping the cord with both hands, swung herself off, and hung suspended over the waters of the moat far below. Isabelle held her breath. With a rapid motion of the hands Chiquita crossed the clear space, reached the tree safely, and climbed down into it with the agility of a monkey.

"Now undo the knot so that I can take the cord with me," she said, in a low but very distinct tone of voice to Isabelle, who began to breathe freely again, "unless, indeed, you would like to follow me. But you would be frightened and dizzy, and might fall, so you had better stay where you are. Good-bye! I am going straight to Paris, and shall soon be back again; I can get on quickly in this bright moonlight."

Isabelle did as she was bid, and the branch, being no longer held by the cord, swung back to its original position. In less than a minute Chiquita had scrambled down to the ground, and the captive soon lost sight of her slender little figure as she walked off briskly towards the capital.

All that had just occurred seemed like a strange dream to Isabelle, now that she found herself alone again. She remained for some time at the open casement, looking at the great tree opposite, and trembling as she realized the terrible risk Chiquita had run for her sake-feeling warm gratitude and tender affection for the wild, incomprehensible little creature, who manifested such a strong attachment for herself, and a new hope sprang up in her heart as she thought that now de Sigognac would soon know where to find her. The cold night air at last forced her to close the window, and after arranging the curtains over it carefully, so as to show no signs of having been disturbed, she returned to her easy-chair by the fire; and just in time, for she had scarcely seated herself when the major-domo entered, followed by the two servants, again carrying the little table, set for one, with her supper daintily arranged upon it. A few minutes earlier and Chiquita's escape would have been discovered and prevented. Isabelle, still greatly agitated by all that had passed, could not eat, and signed to the servants to remove the supper untouched. Whereupon the major-domo himself put some bread and wine on a small table beside the bed, and placed on a chair near the fire a richly trimmed dressing-gown, and everything that a lady could require in making her toilet for the night. Several large logs of wood were piled up on the massive andirons, the candles were renewed, and then the major-domo, approaching Isabelle with a profound obeisance, said to her that if she desired the services of a maid he would send one to her. As she made a gesture of dissent he withdrew, after again bowing to her most respectfully. When they had all gone, Isabelle, quite worn out, threw herself down on the outside of the bed without undressing, so as to be ready in case of any sudden alarm in the night; then took out Chiquita's knife, opened it, and laid it beside her. Having taken these precautions, she closed her eyes, and hoped that she could for a while forget her troubles in sleep; but she had been so much excited and agitated that her nerves were all quivering, and it was long before she even grew drowsy. There were so many strange, incomprehensible noises in the great, empty house to disturb and startle her; and in her own room, the cracking of the furniture, the ticking of a death-watch in the wall near her bed, the gnawing of a rat behind the wainscot, the snapping of the fire. At each fresh sound she started up in terror, with her poor heart throbbing as if it would burst out of her breast, a cold perspiration breaking out on her forehead, and trembling in every limb. At last, however, weary nature had to succumb, and she fell into a deep sleep, which lasted until she was awakened by the sun shining on her face. Her first thought was to wonder that she had not yet seen the Duke of Vallombreuse; but she was thankful for his absence, and hoped that it would continue until Chiquita should have brought de Sigognac to the rescue.

The reason why the young duke had not yet made his appearance was one of policy. He had taken especial pains to show himself at Saint Germain on the day of the abduction-had joined the royal hunting party, and been exceedingly and unwontedly affable to all who happened to come in contact with him. In the evening he had played at cards, and lost ostentatiously sums that would have been of importance to a less wealthy man-being all the time in a very genial mood-especially after the arrival of a mounted messenger, who brought him a little note. Thus the duke's desire to be able to establish an incontestable alibi, in case of need, had spared Isabelle thus far the infliction of his hated presence; but while she was congratulating herself upon it, and welcoming the sunshine that streamed into her room, she heard the drawbridge being let down, and imm

ediately after a carriage dashed over it and thundered into the court. Her heart sank, for who would be likely to enter in that style save the master of the house? Her face grew deathly pale, she reeled, and for one dreadful moment felt as if she should faint; but, rallying her courage, she reminded herself that Chiquita had gone to bring de Sigognac to her aid, and determined afresh to meet bravely whatever trials might be in store for her, until her beloved knight and champion should arrive, to rescue her from her terrible danger and irksome imprisonment. Her eyes involuntarily sought the portrait over the chimney-piece, and after passionately invoking it, and imploring its aid and protection, as if it had been her patron saint, she felt a certain sense of ease and security, as if what she had so earnestly entreated would really be accorded to her.

A full hour had elapsed, which the young duke had employed in the duties of the toilet, and in snatching a few minutes of repose after his rapid night-journey, when the major-domo presented himself, and asked respectfully if Isabelle would receive the Duke of Vallombreuse.

"I am a prisoner," she replied, with quiet dignity, "and this demand, which would be fitting and polite in any ordinary case, is only a mockery when addressed to one in my position. I have no means of preventing your master's coming into this room, nor can I quit it to avoid him. I do not accept his visit but submit to it. He must do as he pleases about it, and come and go when he likes. He allows me no choice in the matter. Go and tell him exactly what I have said to you."

The major-domo bowed low, and retired backward to the door, having received strict orders to treat Isabelle with the greatest respect and consideration. In a few minutes he returned, and announced the Duke of Vallombreuse.

Isabelle half rose from her chair by the fire, but turned very pale and fell back into it, as her unwelcome visitor made his appearance at the door. He closed it and advanced slowly towards her, hat in hand, but when he perceived that she was trembling violently, and looked ready to faint, he stopped in the middle of the room, made a low bow, and said in his most dulcet, persuasive tones:

"If my presence is too unbearably odious now to the charming Isabelle, and she would like to have a little time to get used to the thought of seeing me, I will withdraw. She is my prisoner, it is true, but I am none the less her slave."

"This courtesy is tardy," Isabelle replied coldly, "after the violence you have made use of against me."

"That is the natural result," said the duke, with a smile, "of pushing people to extremity by a too obstinate and prolonged resistance. Having lost all hope, they stop at nothing-knowing that they cannot make matters any worse, whatever they do. If you had only been willing to suffer me to pay my court to you in the regular way, and shown a little indulgence to my love, I should have quietly remained among the ranks of your passionate adorers; striving, by dint of delicate attentions, chivalrous devotion, magnificent offerings, and respectful yet ardent solicitations, to soften that hard heart of yours. If I could not have succeeded in inspiring it with love for me, I might at least have awakened in it that tender pity which is akin to love, and which is so often only its forerunner. In the end, perhaps, you would have repented of your cruel severity, and acknowledged that you had been unjust towards me. Believe me, my charming Isabelle, I should have neglected nothing to bring it about."

"If you had employed only honest and honourable means in your suit," Isabelle rejoined, "I should have felt very sorry that I had been so unfortunate as to inspire an attachment I could not reciprocate, and would have given you my warm sympathy, and friendly regard, instead of being reluctantly compelled, by repeated outrages, to hate you instead.

"You do hate me then?-you acknowledge it?" the duke cried, his voice trembling with rage; but he controlled himself, and after a short pause continued, in a gentler tone, "Yet I do not deserve it. My only wrongs towards you, if any there be, have come from the excess and ardour of my love; and what woman, however chaste and virtuous, can be seriously angry with a gallant gentleman because he has been conquered by the power of her adorable charms? whether she so desired or not."

"Certainly, that is not a reason for dislike or anger, my lord, if the suitor does not overstep the limits of respect, as all women will agree. But when his insolent impatience leads him to commit excesses, and he resorts to fraud, abduction, and imprisonment, as you have not hesitated to do, there is no other result possible than an unconquerable aversion. Coercion is always and inevitably revolting to a nature that has any proper pride or delicacy. Love, true love, is divine, and cannot be furnished to order, or extorted by violence. It is spontaneous, and freely given-not to be bought, nor yet won by importunity."

"Is an unconquerable aversion then all that I am to expect from you?" said Vallombreuse, who had become pale to ghastliness, and been fiercely gnawing his under lip, while Isabelle was speaking, in her sweet, clear tones, which fell on his ear like the soft chiming of silver bells, and only served to enhance his devouring passion.

"There is yet one means of winning my friendship and gratitude-be noble and generous, and give me back the liberty of which you have deprived me. Let me return to my companions, who must be anxiously seeking for me, and suffering keenly because of their fears for my safety. Let me go and resume my lowly life as an actress, before this outrageous affair-which may irreparably injure my reputation-has become generally known, or my absence from the theatre been remarked by the public."

"How unfortunate it is," cried the duke, angrily, "that you should ask of me the only thing I cannot do for you. If you had expressed your desire for an empire, a throne, I would have given it to you-or if you had wished for a star, I would have climbed up into the heavens to get it for you. But here you calmly ask me to open the door of this cage, little bird, to which you would never come back of your own accord, if I were stupid enough to let you go. It is impossible! I know well that you love me so little, or rather hate me so much, that you would never see me again of your own free will-that my only chance of enjoying your charming society is to lock you up-keep you my prisoner. However much it may cost my pride, I must do it-for I can no more live without you than a plant without the light. My thoughts turn to you as the heliotrope to the sun. Where you are not, all is darkness for me. If what I have dared to do is a crime, I must make the best of it, and profit by it as much as I can-for you would never forgive nor overlook it, whatever you may say now. Here at least I have you-I hold you. I can surround you with my love and care, and strive to melt the ice of your coldness by the heat of my passion. Your eyes must behold me-your ears must listen to my voice. I shall exert an influence over you, if only by the alarm and detestation I am so unfortunate as to inspire in your gentle breast; the sound of my footsteps in your antechamber will make you start and tremble. And then, besides all that, this captivity separates you effectually from the miserable fellow you fancy that you love-and whom I abhor; because he has dared to turn your heart away from me. I can at least enjoy this small satisfaction, of keeping you from him; and I will not let you go free to return to him-you may be perfectly sure of that, my fair lady!"

"And how long do you intend to keep me captive?-not like a Christian gentleman, but like a lawless corsair."

"Until you have learned to love me-or at least to say that you have, which amounts to the same thing."

Then he made her a low bow, and departed, with as self-satisfied and jaunty an air as if he had been in truth a favoured suitor. Half an hour later a lackey brought in a beautiful bouquet, of the rarest and choicest flowers, while the stems were clasped by a magnificent bracelet, fit for a queen's wearing. A little piece of folded paper nestled among the flowers-a note from the duke-and the fair prisoner recognised the handwriting as the same in which "For Isabelle" was written, on the slip of paper that accompanied the casket of jewels at Poitiers. The note read as follows:

"DEAR ISABELLE-I send you these flowers, though I know they will be ungraciously received. As they come from me, their beauty and fragrance will not find favour in your eyes. But whatever may be their fate, even though you only touch them to fling them disdainfully out of the window, they will force you to think for a moment-if it be but in anger-of him who declares himself, in spite of everything, your devoted adorer,


This note, breathing of the most specious gallantry, and tenacity of purpose, did produce very much the effect it predicted; for it made Isabelle exceedingly angry; and, without even once inhaling the delicious perfume of the flowers, or pausing for an instant to admire their beauty, she flung the bouquet, diamond bracelet and all, out into the antechamber. Never surely were lovely blossoms so badly treated; and yet Isabelle was excessively fond of them; but she feared that if she even allowed them to remain a little while in her room, their donor would presume upon the slight concession. She had scarcely resumed her seat by the fire, after disposing of the obnoxious bouquet, when a maid appeared, who had been sent to wait upon her. She was a pretty, refined looking girl, but very pale, and with an air of deep melancholy-as if she were brooding over a secret sorrow. She offered her services to Isabelle without looking up, and in a low, subdued voice, as if she feared that the very walls had ears. Isabelle allowed her to take down and comb out her long, silky hair, which was very much dishevelled, and to arrange it again as she habitually wore it; which was quickly and skilfully done. Then the maid opened a wardrobe and took out several beautiful gowns, exquisitely made and trimmed, and just Isabelle's size; but she would not even look at them, and sharply ordered that they should instantly be put back where they belonged, though her own dress was very much the worse for the rough treatment it had been subjected to on the preceding day, and it was a trial to the sweet, dainty creature to be so untidy. But she was determined to accept nothing from the duke, no matter how long her captivity might last. The maid did not insist, but acceded to her wishes with a mild, pitying air-just as indulgence is shown, as far as possible, to all the little whims and caprices of prisoners condemned to death. Isabelle would have liked to question her attendant, and endeavour to elicit some information from her, but the girl was more like an automaton than anything else, and it was impossible to gain more than a monosyllable from her lips. So Isabelle resigned herself with a sigh to her mute ministerings, not without a sort of vague terror.

After the maid had retired, dinner was served as before, and Isabelle made a hearty meal-feeling that she must keep up her strength, and also hopeful of hearing something in a few hours more from her faithful lover. Her thoughts were all of him, and as she realized the dangers to which he would inevitably be exposed for her sake, her eyes filled with tears, and a sharp pang shot through her heart. She was angry with herself for being the cause of so much trouble, and fain to curse her own beauty-the unhappy occasion of it all. She was absorbed in these sad thoughts when a little noise as if a hail-stone had struck against the window pane, suddenly aroused her. She flew to the casement, and saw Chiquita, in the tree opposite, signing to her to open it, and swinging back and forth the long horse-hair cord, with the iron hook attached to it. She hastened to comply with the wishes of her strange little ally, and, as she stepped back in obedience to another sign, the hook, thrown with unerring aim, caught securely in the iron railing of the little balcony. Chiquita tied the other end of the cord to the branch to which she was clinging, and then began to cross over the intervening space as before; but ere she was half-way over, the knot gave way, and poor Isabelle for one moment of intense agony thought that the child was lost. But, instead of falling into the moat beneath her, Chiquita, who did not appear to be in the least disconcerted by this accident, swung over against the wall below the balcony, and climbing up the cord hand over hand, leaped lightly into the room, before Isabelle had recovered her breath. Finding her very pale, and tremulous, the child said smilingly, "You were frightened, eh? and thought Chiquita would fall down among the frogs in the moat. When I tied my cord to the branch, I only made a slip-knot, so that I could bring it back with me. I must have looked like a big spider climbing up its thread," she added, with a laugh.

"My dear child," said Isabelle, with much feeling, and kissing Chiquita's forehead, "you are a very brave little girl."

"I saw your friends. They had been searching and searching for you; but without Chiquita they would never have found out where you were hidden. The captain was rushing about like an angry lion-his eyes flashed fire-he was magnificent. I came back with him. He rode, and held me in front of him. He is hidden in a little wood not far off, he and his comrades-they must keep out of sight, you know. This evening, as soon as it is dark, they will try to get in here to you-by the tree, you know. There's sure to be a scrimmage-pistol shots and swords clashing-oh! it will be splendid; for there's nothing so fine as a good fight; when the men are in earnest, and fierce and brave. Now don't you be frightened and scream, as silly women do; nothing upsets them like that. You must just remain perfectly quiet, and keep out of their way. If you like, I will come and stay by you, so that you will not be afraid."

"Don't be uneasy about that, Chiquita! I will not annoy my brave friends, who come to save my life at the risk of their own, by any foolish fears or demonstrations; that I promise you."

"That's right," the child replied, "and until they come, you can defend yourself with my knife, you know. Don't forget the proper way to use it. Strike like this, and then do so; you can rip him up beautifully. As for me, I'm going to hunt up a quiet corner where I can get a nap. No, I can't stay here, for we must not be seen together; it would never do. Now do you be sure to keep away from that window. You must not even go near it, no matter what you hear, for fear they might suspect that you hoped for help from that direction. If they did, it would be all up with us; for they would send out and search the woods, and beat the bushes, and find our friends where they lie hidden. The whole thing would fall through, and you would have to stop here with this horrid duke that you hate so much."

"I will not go near the window," Isabelle answered, "nor even look towards it, however much I may wish to. You may depend upon my discretion, Chiquita, I do assure you."

Reassured upon this important point, Chiquita crept softly away, and went back to the lower room where she had left the ruffians carousing. They were still there-lying about on the benches and the floor, in a drunken sleep, and evidently had not even missed her. She curled herself up in a corner, as far as might be from the loathsome brutes, and was asleep in a minute. The poor child was completely tired out; her slender little feet had travelled eight leagues the night before, running a good part of the way, and the return on horseback had perhaps fatigued her even more, being unaccustomed to it. Although her fragile little body had the strength and endurance of steel, she was worn out now, and lay, pale and motionless, in a sleep that seemed like death.

"Dear me! how these children do sleep to be sure," said Malartic, when he roused himself at last and looked about him. "In spite of our carouse, and all the noise we made, that little monkey in the corner there has never waked nor stirred. Halloa! wake up you fellows! drunken beasts that you are. Try to stand up on your hind legs, and go out in the court and dash a bucket of cold water over your cursed heads. The Circe of drunkenness has made swine of you in earnest-go and see if the baptism I recommend will turn you back into men, and then we'll take a little look round the place, to make sure there's no plot hatching to rescue the little beauty we have in charge."

The men scrambled to their feet slowly and with difficulty, and staggered out into the court as best they might, where the fresh air, and the treatment prescribed by Malartic, did a good deal towards reviving them; but they were a sorry looking set after all, and there were many aching heads among them. As soon as they were fit for it, Malartic took three of the least tipsy of them, and leading the way to a small postern that opened on the moat, unchained a row-boat lying there, crossed the broad ditch, ascended a steep flight of steps leading up the bank on the other side, and, leaving one man to guard the boat, proceeded to make a tour of inspection in the immediate vicinity of the chateau; fortunately without stumbling on the party concealed in the wood, or seeing anything to arouse their suspicions; so they returned to their quarters perfectly satisfied that there was no enemy lurking near.

Meantime Isabelle, left quite alone, tried in vain to interest herself in a book she had found lying upon one of the side-tables. She read a few pages mechanically, and then, finding it impossible to fix her attention upon it, threw the volume from her and sat idly in front of the fire, which was blazing cheerily, thinking of her own true lover, and praying that he might be preserved from injury in the impending struggle. Evening came at last-a servant brought in lights, and soon after the major-domo announced a visit from the Duke of Vallombreuse. He entered at once, and greeted his fair captive with the most finished courtesy. He looked very handsome, in a superb suit of pearl gray satin, richly trimmed with crimson velvet, and Isabelle could not but admire his personal appearance, much as she detested his character.

"I have come to see, my adorable Isabelle, whether I shall be more kindly received than my flowers," said he, drawing up a chair beside hers. "I have not the vanity to think so, but I want you to become accustomed to my presence. To-morrow another bouquet, and another visit."

"Both will be useless, my lord," she replied, "though I am sorry to have to be so rude as to say so-but I had much better be perfectly frank with you."

"Ah, well!" rejoined the duke, with a malicious smile, "I will dispense with hope, and content myself with reality. You do not know, my poor child, what a Vallombreuse can do-you, who vainly try to resist him. He has never yet known what it was to have an unsatisfied desire-he invariably gains his ends, in spite of all opposition-nothing can stop him. Tears, supplication, laments, threats, even dead bodies and smoking ruins would not daunt him. Do not tempt him too powerfully, by throwing new obstacles in his way, you imprudent child!"

Isabelle, frightened by the expression of his countenance as he spoke thus, instinctively pushed her chair farther away from his, and felt for Chiquita's knife. But the wily duke, seeing that he had made a mistake, instantly changed his tone, and begging her pardon most humbly for his vehemence, endeavoured to persuade her, by many specious arguments, that she was wrong in persistently turning a deaf ear to his suit-setting forth at length, and in glowing words, all the advantages that would accrue to her if she would but yield to his wishes, and describing the happiness in store for her. While he was thus eloquently pleading his cause, Isabelle, who had given him only a divided attention, thought that she heard a peculiar little noise in the direction whence the longed-for aid was to come, and fearing that Vallombreuse might hear it also, hastened to answer him the instant that he paused, in a way to vex him still further-for she preferred his anger to his love-making. Also, she hoped that by quarrelling with him she would be able to prevent his perceiving the suspicious little sound-now growing louder and more noticeable.

"The happiness that you so eloquently describe, my lord, would be for me a disgrace, which I am resolved to escape by death, if all other means fail me. You never shall have me living. Formerly I regarded you with indifference, but now I both hate and despise you, for your infamous, outrageous and violent behaviour to me, your helpless victim. Yes, I may as well tell you openly-and I glory in it-that I do love the Baron de Sigognac, whom you have more than once so basely tried to assassinate, through your miserable hired ruffians."

The strange noise still kept on, and Isabelle raised her voice to drown it. At her audacious, defiant words, so distinctly and impressively enunciated-hurled at him, as it were-Vallombreuse turned pale, and his eyes flashed ominously; a light foam gathered about the corners of his mouth, and he laid hold of the handle of his sword. For an instant he thought of killing Isabelle himself, then and there. If he could not have her, at least no one else should. But he relinquished that idea almost as soon as it occurred to him, and with a hard, forced laugh said, as he sprang up and advanced impetuously towards Isabelle, who retreated before him:

"Now, by all the devils in hell, I cannot help admiring you immensely in this mood. It is a new role for you, and you are deucedly charming in it. You have got such a splendid colour, and your eyes are so bright-you are superb, I declare. I am greatly flattered at your blazing out into such dazzling beauty on my account-upon my word I am. You have done well to speak out openly-I hate deceit. So you love de Sigognac, do you? So much the better, say I-it will be all the sweeter to call you mine. It will be a pleasing variety to press ardent kisses upon sweet lips that say 'I hate you,' instead of the insipid, everlasting 'I love you,' that one gets a surfeit of from all the pretty women of one's acquaintance."

Alarmed at this coarse language, and the threatening gestures that accompanied it, Isabelle started back and drew out Chiquita's knife.

"Bravo!" cried the duke-"here comes the traditional poniard. We are being treated to a bit of high tragedy. But, my fierce little beauty, if you are well up in your Roman history, you will remember that the chaste Mme. Lucretia did not make use of her dagger until AFTER the assault of Sextus, the bold son of Tarquin the Proud. That ancient and much-cited example is a good one to follow."

And without paying any more attention to the knife than to a bee-sting, he had violently seized Isabelle in his arms before she could raise it to strike.

Just at that moment a loud cracking noise was heard, followed by a tremendous crash, and the casement fell clattering to the floor, with every pane of glass in it shattered; as if a giant had put his knee against it and broken it in; while a mass of branches protruded through the opening into the room. It was the top of the tree that Chiquita had made such good use of as a way of escape and return. The trunk, sawed nearly through by de Sigognac and his companions, was guided in its fall so as to make a means of access to Isabelle's window; both bridging the moat, and answering all the purposes of a ladder.

The Duke of Vallombreuse, astonished at this most extraordinary intrusion upon his love-making, released his trembling victim, and drew his sword. Chiquita, who had crept into the room unperceived when the crash came, pulled Isabelle's sleeve and whispered, "Come into this corner, out of the way; the dance is going to begin."

As she spoke, several pistol shots were heard without, and four of the duke's ruffians-who were doing garrison duty came rushing up the stairs, four steps at a time, and dashed into the room-sword in hand, and eager for the fray.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top