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   Chapter 20 HYMEN! OH HYMEN!

Captain Fracasse By Theophile Gautier Characters: 25494

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Isabelle, accustomed to Chiquita's odd, enigmatical ways, had refrained from questioning her-waiting to ask for explanations until the poor girl should have become more quiet, and able to give them. She could see that some terrible catastrophe must have occurred, which had left all her nerves quivering, and caused the strong shudders that passed over her in rapid succession; but the child had rendered her such good service, in her own hour of need, that she felt the least she could do was to receive and care for the poor little waif tenderly, without making any inquiries as to her evidently desperate situation. After giving her in charge to her own maid, with orders that she should be properly clothed, and made thoroughly comfortable in every way, Isabelle resumed her reading-or rather tried to resume it; but her thoughts would wander, and after mechanically turning over a few pages in a listless way, she laid the book down, beside her neglected embroidery, on a little table at her elbow. Leaning her head on her hand, and closing her eyes, she lapsed into a sorrowful reverie-as, indeed, she had done of late many times every day.

"Oh! what has become of de Sigognac?" she said to herself. "Where can he be? and does he still think of me, and love me as of old? Yes, I am sure he does; he will be true and faithful to me so long as he lives, my brave, devoted knight! I fear that he has gone back to his desolate, old chateau, and, believing that my brother is dead, does not dare to approach me. It must be that chimerical obstacle that stands in his way-otherwise he would surely have tried to see me again-or at least have written to me. Perhaps I ought to have sent him word that Vallombreuse had recovered; yet how could I do that? A modest woman shrinks from even seeming to wish to entice her absent lover back to her side. How often I think that I should be far happier if I could have remained as I was-an obscure actress; then I could at least have had the bliss of seeing him every day, and of enjoying in peace the sweetness of being loved by such a noble, tender heart as his. Despite the touching affection and devotion that my princely father lavishes upon me, I feel sad and lonely in this magnificent chateau. If Vallombreuse were only here his society would help to pass the time; but he is staying away so long-and I try in vain to make out what he meant when he told me, with such a significant smile, as he bade me adieu, that I would be pleased with what he was about to do. Sometimes I fancy that I do understand; but I dare not indulge myself with such blissful thoughts for an instant. If I did, and were mistaken after all, the disappointment would be too cruel-too heart-rending. But, if it only could be true! ah! if it only might! I fear I should go mad with excess of joy."

The young Comtesse de Lineuil was still absorbed in sad thoughts when a tall lackey appeared, and asked if she would receive his lordship, the Duke of Vallombreuse who had just arrived, at the chateau and desired to speak with her.

"Certainly, I shall be delighted to see him," she said in glad surprise; "ask him to come to me at once."

In a few minutes-which had seemed like hours to Isabelle-the young duke made his appearance, with beaming eyes, rosy cheeks, light, elastic step, and that air of glorious health and vigour which had distinguished him before his illness. He threw down his broad felt hat as he came in, and, hastening to his sister's side, took her pretty white hands and raised them to his lips.

"Dearest Isabelle," he cried, "I am so rejoiced to see you again! I was obliged to stay away from you much longer than I wished, for it is a great deprivation to me now not to be with you every day-I have gotten so thoroughly into the habit of depending upon your sweet society. But I have been occupied entirely with your interests during my absence, and the hope of pleasing my darling sister, and adding to her happiness, has helped me to endure the long separation from her."

"The way to please me most, as you ought to have known," Isabelle replied, "was to stay here at home quietly with your father and me, and let us take care of you, instead of rushing off so rashly-with your wound scarcely healed, or your health fully re-established-on some foolish errand or other, that you were not willing to acknowledge."

"Was I ever really wounded, or ill?" said Vallombreuse, laughing. "Upon my word I had forgotten all about it. Never in my life was I in better health than at this moment, and my little expedition has done me no end of good. But you, my sweet sister, are not looking as well as when I left you; you have grown thin and pale. What is the matter? I fear that you find your life here at the chateau very dull. Solitude and seclusion are not at all the thing for a beautiful young woman, I know. Reading and embroidery are but melancholy pastimes at best and there must be moments when even the gravest, most sedate of maidens grows weary of gazing out upon the stagnant waters of the moat, and longs to look upon the face of a handsome young knight."

"Oh! what an unmerciful tease you are, Vallombreuse, and how you do love to torment me with these strange fancies of yours. You forget that I have had the society of the prince, who is so kind and devoted to me, and who abounds in wise and instructive discourse."

"Yes, there is no doubt that our worthy father is a most learned and accomplished gentleman, honoured and admired at home and abroad; but his pursuits and occupations are too grave and weighty for you to share, my dear little sister, and I don't want to see your youth passed altogether in such a solemn way. As you would not smile upon my friend, the Chevalier de Vidalinc, nor condescend to listen to the suit of the Marquis de l'Estang, I concluded to go in search of somebody that would be more likely to please your fastidious taste, and, my dear, I have found him. Such a charming, perfect, ideal husband he will make! I am convinced that you will dote upon him."

"It is downright cruelty, Vallombreuse, to persecute me as you do, with such unfeeling jests. You know perfectly well that I do not wish to marry; I cannot give my hand without my heart, and my heart is not mine to give."

"But you will talk very differently, I do assure you, my dear little sister, when you see the husband I have chosen for you."

"Never! never!" cried Isabelle, whose voice betrayed her distress. "I shall always be faithful to a memory that is infinitely dear and precious to me; for I cannot think that you intend to force me to act against my will."

"Oh, no! I am not quite such a tyrant as that; I only ask you not to reject my protege before you have seen him."

Without waiting for her reply, Vallombreuse abruptly left the room, and returned in a moment with de Sigognac, whose heart was throbbing as if it would burst out of his breast. The two young men, hand in hand, paused on the threshold, hoping that Isabelle would turn her eyes towards them; but she modestly cast them down and kept them fixed upon the floor, while her thoughts flew far away, to hover about the beloved being who she little dreamed was so near her. Vallombreuse, seeing that she took no notice of them, and had fallen into a reverie, advanced towards her, still holding de Sigognac by the hand, and made a ceremonious bow, as did also his companion; but while the young duke was smiling and gay, de Sigognac was deeply agitated, and very pale. Brave as a lion when he had to do with men, he was timid with women-as are all generous, manly hearts.

"Comtesse de Lineuil," said Vallombreuse, in an emphatic tone of voice, "permit me to present to you one of my dearest friends, for whom I entreat your favour-the Baron de Sigognac."

As he pronounced this name, which she at first believed to be a jest on her brother's part, Isabelle started, trembled violently, and then glanced up timidly at the newcomer.

When she saw that Vallombreuse had not deceived her, that it was really he, her own true lover, standing there before her, she turned deathly pale, and had nearly fallen from her chair; then the quick reaction came, and a most lovely blush spread itself all over her fair face, and even her snowy neck, as far as it could be seen. Without a word, she sprang up, and throwing her arms round her brother's neck hid her face on his shoulder, while two or three convulsive sobs shook her slender frame and a little shower of tears fell from her eyes. By this instinctive movement, so exquisitely modest and truly feminine, Isabelle manifested all the exceeding delicacy and purity of her nature. Thus were her warm thanks to Vallombreuse, whose kindness and generosity overcame her, mutely expressed; and as she could not follow the dictates of her heart, and throw herself into her lover's arms, she took refuge in her transport of joy with her brother, who had restored him to her.

Vallombreuse supported her tenderly for a few moments, until he found she was growing calmer, when he gently disengaged himself from her clasping arms, and drawing down the hands with which she had covered her face, to hide its tears and blushes, said, "My sweet sister, do not, I pray you, hide your lovely face from us; I fear my protege will be driven to believe that you entertain such an invincible dislike to him you will not even look at him."

Isabelle raised her drooping head, and turning full upon de Sigognac her glorious eyes, shining with a celestial joy, in spite of the sparkling tear-drops that still hung upon their long lashes, held out to him her beautiful white hand, which he took reverentially in both his own, and bending down pressed fervently to his lips. The passionate kiss he imprinted upon it thrilled through Isabelle's whole being, and for a second she turned faint and giddy; but the delicious ecstasy, which is almost anguish, of such emotion as hers, is never hurtful, and she presently looked up and smiled reassuringly upon her anxious lover, as the colour returned to her lips and cheeks, and the warm light to her eyes.

"And now tell me, my sweet little sister," began Vallombreuse, with an air of triumph, and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, "wasn't I right when I declared that you would smile upon the husband I had chosen for you? and would not be discouraged, though you were so obstinate? If I had not been equally so, this dear de Sigognac would have gone back to his far-away chateau, without even having seen you; and that would have been a pity, as you must admit."

"Yes, I do admit it, my dearest brother, and also that you have been adorably kind and good to me. You were the only one who, under the circumstances, could bring about this reunion, and we both know how to appreciate what you have so nobly and generously done for us."

"Yes, indeed," said de Sigognac warmly; "your brother has given us ample proof of the nobility and generosity of his nature-he magnanimously put aside the resentment that might seem legitimate, and came to me with his hand outstretched, and his heart in it. He revenges himself nobly for the harm I was obliged to do him, by imposing an eternal gratitude upon me-a light burden, that I shall bear joyfully so long as I live."

"Say nothing more about that, my dear baron!" Vallombreuse exclaimed. "You would have done as much in my place. The differences of two valiant adversaries are very apt to end in a warm mutual attachment-we were destined from the beginning to become, sooner or later, a devoted pair of friends; like Theseus and Pirithous, Nisus and Euryalus, or Damon and Pythias. But never mind about me now, and tell my sister how you were thinking of her, and longing for her, in that lonely chateau of yours; where, by the way, I made one of the best meals I ever had in my life, though you do pretend that starvation is the rule down there."

"And I had a charming supper there too," said Isabelle with a smile, "which I look back upon with the greatest pleasure."

"Nevertheless," rejoined de Sigognac, "plenty does not abound there-but I cannot regret the blessed poverty that was the means of first winning me your regard, my precious darling! I am thankful for it-I owe everything to it."

"I am of opinion," interrupted Vallombreuse, with a significant smile, "that it would be well for me to go and report myself to my father. I want to announce your arrival to him myself, de Sigognac! Not that he will need to be specially prepared to receive you, for I am bound to confess-what may surprise my little sister here-that he knew such a thing might come about, and was equally implicated with my graceless self in this little conspiracy. But

one thing yet-tell me before I go, Isabelle, Comtesse de Lineuil, whether you really do intend to accept the Baron de Sigognac as your husband-I don't want to run any risk of making a blunder at this stage of the proceedings, you understand, after having conducted the negotiations successfully up to this point. You do definitely and finally accept him, eh?-that is well-and now I will go to the prince. Engaged lovers sometimes have matters to discuss that even a brother may not hear, so I will leave you together, feeling sure that you will both thank me for it in your hearts. Adieu!-make the most of your time, for I shall soon return to conduct de Sigognac to the prince."

With a laughing nod the young duke picked up his hat and went away, leaving the two happy lovers alone together, and-however agreeable his company may have been to them, it must be admitted that his absence was, as he had predicted, very welcome to both. The Baron de Sigognac eagerly approached Isabelle, and-again possessed himself of her fair hand, which she did not withdraw from his warm, loving clasp. Neither spoke, and for a few minutes the fond lovers stood side by side and gazed into each other's eyes. Such silence is more eloquent than any words. At last de Sigognac said softly, "I can scarcely believe even yet in the reality of so much bliss. Oh! what a strange, contradictory destiny is mine. You loved me, my darling, because I was poor and unhappy-and thus my past misery was the direct cause of my present felicity. A troupe of strolling actors, who chanced to seek refuge under my crumbling roof, held in reserve for me an angel of purity and goodness-a hostile encounter has given me a devoted friend-and, most wonderful of all, your forcible abduction led to your meeting the fond father who had been seeking you so many years in vain. And all this because a Thespian chariot went astray one stormy night in the Landes."

"We were destined for each other-it was all arranged for us in heaven above. Twin souls are sure to come together at last, if they can only have patience to wait for the meeting. I felt instinctively, when we met at the Chateau de Sigognac, that you were my fate. At sight of you my heart, which had always lain dormant before, and never responded to any appeal, thrilled within me, and, unasked, yielded to you all its love and allegiance. Your very timidity won more for you than the greatest boldness and assurance could have done, and from the first moment of our acquaintance I resolved never to give myself to any one but you, or God."

"And yet, cruel, hard-hearted child that you were-though so divinely good and lovely-you refused your hand to me, when I sued for it on my knees. I know well that it was all through generosity, and that of the noblest-but, my darling, it was a very cruel generosity too."

"I will do my best to atone for it now, my dearest de Sigognac, in giving you this hand you wished for, together with my heart, which has long been all your own. The Comtesse de Lineuil is not bound to be governed by the scruples of Isabelle, the actress. I have had only one fear-that your pride might keep you from ever seeking me again as I am now. But, even if you had given me up, you would never have loved another woman, would you, de Sigognac? You would have been faithful to me always, even though you had renounced me-I felt so sure of that. Were you thinking of me down there in your ancient chateau, when Vallombreuse broke in upon your solitude?"

"My dearest Isabelle, by day I had only one thought-of you-and at night, when I kissed the sacred pillow on which your lovely head had rested, before laying my own down upon it, I besought the god of dreams to show me your adored image while I slept."

"And were your prayers sometimes answered?"

"Always-not once was I disappointed-and only when morning came did you leave me, vanishing through 'the ivory gates.' Oh I how interminable the sad, lonely days seemed to me, and how I wished that I could sleep, and dream of you, my angel, all the weary time."

"I saw you also in my dreams, many nights in succession. Our souls must have met, de Sigognac, while our bodies lay wrapped in slumber. But now, thanks be to God, we are reunited-and forever. The prince, my father, knew and approved of your being brought here, Vallombreuse said, so we can have no opposition to our wishes to fear from him. He has spoken to me of you several times of late in very flattering terms; looking at me searchingly, the while, in a way that greatly agitated and troubled me, for I did not know what might be in his mind, as Vallombreuse had not then told me that he no longer hated you, and I feared that he would always do so after his double defeat at your hands. But all the terrible anxiety is over now, my beloved, and blessed peace and happiness lie before us."

At this moment the door opened, and the young duke announced to de Sigognac that his father was waiting to receive him. The baron immediately rose from his seat beside Isabelle, bowed low to her, and followed Vallombreuse to the prince's presence. The aged nobleman, dressed entirely in black, and with his breast covered with orders, was sitting in a large arm-chair at a table heaped up with books and papers, with which he had evidently been occupied. His attitude was stately and dignified, and the expression of his noble, benevolent countenance affable in the extreme. He rose to receive de Sigognac, gave him a cordial greeting, and politely bade him be seated.

"My dear father," said Vallombreuse, "I present to you the Baron de Sigognac; formerly my rival, now my friend, and soon to be my brother, if you consent. Any improvement that you may see in me is due to his influence, and it is no light obligation that I owe to him-though he will not admit that there is any. The baron comes to ask a favour of you, which I shall rejoice to see accorded to him."

The prince made a gesture of acquiescence, and looked reassuringly at de Sigognac, as if inviting him to speak fearlessly for himself. Encouraged by the expression of his eyes, the baron rose, and, with a low bow, said, in clear, distinct tones, "Prince, I am here to ask of you the hand of Mlle. la Comtesse Isabelle de Lineuil, your daughter."

The old nobleman looked at him steadily and searchingly for a moment, and then, as if satisfied with his scrutiny, answered: "Baron de Sigognac, I accede to your request, and consent to this alliance, with great pleasure-so far, that is, as my paternal will accords with the wishes of my beloved daughter-whom I should never attempt to coerce in anything. The Comtesse de Lineuil must be consulted in this matter, and herself decide the question which is of such vital importance to her. I cannot undertake to answer for her-the whims and fancies of young ladies are sometimes so odd and unexpected."

The prince said this with a mischievous smile-as if he had not long known that Isabelle loved de Sigognac with all her heart, and was pining for him. After a brief pause, he added: "Vallombreuse, go and fetch your sister, for, without her, I cannot give a definite answer to the Baron de Sigognac."

The young duke accordingly went for Isabelle, who was greatly alarmed at this summons, and obeyed it in fear and trembling. Despite her brother's assurances, she could not bring herself to believe in the reality of such great happiness. Her breast heaved tumultuously, her face was very pale, at each step her knees threatened to give way under her, and when her father drew her fondly to his side she was forced to grasp the arm of his chair tightly, to save herself from falling.

"My daughter," said the prince gravely, "here is a gentleman who does you the honour to sue for your hand. For my own part, I should hail this union with joy-for he is of an ancient and illustrious family, of stainless reputation and tried courage, and appears to me to possess every qualification that heart could desire. I am perfectly satisfied with him-but has he succeeded in pleasing you, my child? Young heads do not always agree with gray ones. Examine your own heart carefully, and tell me if you are willing to accept the Baron de Sigognac as your husband. Take plenty of time to consider-you shall not be hurried, my dear child, in so grave a matter as this."

The prince's kindly, cordial smile gave evidence that he was in a playful mood, and Isabelle, plucking up courage, threw her arms round her father's neck, and said in the softest tones, "There is no need for me to consider or hesitate, my dear lord and father! Since the Baron de Sigognac is so happy as to please you, I confess, freely and frankly, that I have loved him ever since we first met, and have never wished for any other alliance. To obey, you in this will be my highest happiness."

"And now clasp hands, my children, and exchange the kiss of betrothal," cried the Duke of Vallombreuse gaily. "Verily, the romance ends more happily than could have been expected after such a stormy beginning. And now the next question is, when shall the wedding be?"

"It will take a little time to make due preparation," said the prince. "So many people must be set to work, in order that the marriage of my only daughter may be worthily celebrated. Meanwhile, Isabelle, here is your dowry, the deed of the estate of Lineuil-from which you derive your title, and which yields you an income of fifty thousand crowns per annum-together with rent-rolls, and all the various documents appertaining thereto"-and he handed a formidable roll of papers to her. "As to you, my dear de Sigognac, I have here for you a royal ordinance, which constitutes you governor of a province; and no one, I venture to say, could be more worthy of this distinguished honour than yourself."

Vallombreuse, who had gone out of the room while his father was speaking, now made his appearance, followed by a servant carrying a box covered with crimson velvet.

He took it from the lackey at the door, and advancing, placed it upon the table in front of Isabelle.

"My dear little sister," said he, "will you accept this from me as a wedding gift?"

On the cover was inscribed "For Isabelle," in golden letters, and it contained the very casket which the Duke of Vallombreuse had offered at Poitiers to the young actress, and which she had so indignantly refused to receive, or even look at.

"You will accept it this time?" he pleaded, with a radiant smile; "and honour these diamonds of finest water, and these pearls of richest lustre, by wearing them, for my sake. They are not more pure and beautiful than yourself."

Isabelle smilingly took up a magnificent necklace and clasped it round her fair neck, to show that she harboured no resentment; then put the exquisite bracelets on her round, white arms, and decked herself with the various superb ornaments that the beautiful casket contained.

And now we have only to add, that a week later Isabelle and de Sigognac were united in marriage in the chapel at Vallombreuse, which was brilliantly lighted, and filled with fragrance from the profusion of flowers that converted it into a very bower. The music was heavenly, the fair bride adorably beautiful, with her long white veil floating about her, and the Baron de Sigognac radiant with happiness. The Marquis de Bruyeres was one of his witnesses, and a most brilliant and aristocratic assemblage "assisted" at this notable wedding in high life. No one, who had not been previously informed of it, could ever have suspected that the lovely bride-at once so noble and modest, so dignified and graceful, so gentle and refined, yet with as lofty a bearing as a princess of the blood royal-had only a short time before been one of a band of strolling players, nightly fulfilling her duties as an actress. While de Sigognac, governor of a province, captain of mousquetaires, superbly dressed, dignified, stately and affable, the very beau-ideal of a distinguished young nobleman, had nothing about him to recall the poor, shabby, disconsolate youth, almost starving in his dreary, half-ruined chateau, whose misery was described at the beginning of this tale.

After a splendid collation, graced by the presence of the bride and groom, the happy pair vanished; but we will not attempt to follow them, or intrude upon their privacy-turning away at the very threshold of the nuptial chamber, singing, in low tones, after the fashion of the ancients, "Hymen! oh Hymen!"

The mysteries of such sacred happiness as theirs should be respected; and besides, sweet, modest Isabelle would have died of shame if so much as a single one of the pins that held her bodice were indiscreetly drawn out.

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