MoboReader> Romance > A Woodland Queen ('Reine des Bois') — Complete

   Chapter 7 THE STRANGE, DARK SECRET

A Woodland Queen ('Reine des Bois') — Complete By André Theuriet Characters: 37668

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Julien had once entertained the hope that Claudet's marriage with Reine would act as a kind of heroic remedy for the cure of his unfortunate passion, he very soon perceived that he had been wofully mistaken. As soon as he had informed the grand chasserot of the success of his undertaking, he became aware that his own burden was considerably heavier. Certainly it had been easier for him to bear uncertainty than the boisterous rapture evinced by his fortunate rival. His jealousy rose against it, and that was all. Now that he had torn from Reine the avowal of her love for Claudet, he was more than ever oppressed by his hopeless passion, and plunged into a condition of complete moral and physical disintegration. It mingled with his blood, his nerves, his thoughts, and possessed him altogether, dwelling within him like an adored and tyrannical mistress. Reine appeared constantly before him as he had contemplated her on the outside steps of the farmhouse, in her never-to-be-forgotten negligee of the short skirt and the half-open bodice. He again beheld the silken treasure of her tresses, gliding playfully around her shoulders, the clear, honest look of her limpid eyes, the expressive smile of her enchanting lips, and with a sudden revulsion of feeling he reflected that perhaps before a month was over, all these charms would belong to Claudet. Then, almost at the same moment, like a swallow, which, with one rapid turn of its wing, changes its course, his thoughts went in the opposite direction, and he began to imagine what would have happened if, instead of replying in the affirmative, Reine had objected to marrying Claudet. He could picture himself kneeling before her as before the Madonna, and in a low voice confessing his love. He would have taken her hands so respectfully, and pleaded so eloquently, that she would have allowed herself to be convinced. The little, hands would have remained prisoners in his own; he would have lifted her tenderly, devotedly, in his arms, and under the influence of this feverish dream, he fancied he could feel the beating heart of the young girl against his own bosom. Suddenly he would wake up out of his illusions, and bite his lips with rage on finding himself in the dull reality of his own dwelling.

One day he heard footsteps on the gravel; a sonorous and jovial voice met his ear. It was Claudet, starting for La Thuiliere. Julien bent forward to see him, and ground his teeth as he watched his joyous departure. The sharp sting of jealousy entered his soul, and he rebelled against the evident injustice of Fate. How had he deserved that life should present so dismal and forbidding an aspect to him? He had had none of the joys of infancy; his youth had been spent wearily under the peevish discipline of a cloister; he had entered on his young manhood with all the awkwardness and timidity of a night-bird that is made to fly in the day. Up to the age of twenty-seven years, he had known neither love nor friendship; his time had been given entirely to earning his daily bread, and to the cultivation of religious exercises, which consoled him in some measure for his apparently useless way of living. Latterly, it is true, Fortune had seemed to smile upon him, by giving him a little more money and liberty, but this smile was a mere mockery, and a snare more hurtful than the pettinesses and privations of his past life. The fickle goddess, continuing her part of mystifier, had opened to his enraptured sight a magic window through which she had shown him a charming vision of possible happiness; but while he was still gazing, she had closed it abruptly in his face, laughing scornfully at his discomfiture. What sense was there in this perversion of justice, this perpetual mockery of Fate? At times the influence of his early education would resume its sway, and he would ask himself whether all this apparent contradiction were not a secret admonition from on high, warning him that he had not been created to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of this world, and ought, therefore, to turn his attention toward things eternal, and renounce the perishable delights of the flesh?

"If so," thought he, irreverently, "the warning comes rather late, and it would have answered the purpose better had I been allowed to continue in the narrow way of obscure poverty!" Now that the enervating influence of a more prosperous atmosphere had weakened his courage, and cooled the ardor of his piety, his faith began to totter like an old wall. His religious beliefs seemed to have been wrecked by the same storm which had destroyed his passionate hopes of love, and left him stranded and forlorn without either haven or pilot, blown hither and thither solely by the violence of his passion.

By degrees he took an aversion to his home, and would spend entire days in the woods. Their secluded haunts, already colored by the breath of autumn, became more attractive to him as other refuge failed him. They were his consolation; his doubts, weakness, and amorous regrets, found sympathy and indulgence under their silent shelter. He felt less lonely, less humiliated, less prosaic among these great forest depths, these lofty ash-trees, raising their verdant branches to heaven. He found he could more easily evoke the seductive image of Reine Vincart in these calm solitudes, where the recollections of the previous springtime mingled with the phantoms of his heated imagination and clothed themselves with almost living forms. He seemed to see the young girl rising from the mists of the distant valleys. The least fluttering of the leaves heralded her fancied approach. At times the hallucination was so complete that he could see, in the interlacing of the branches, the undulations of her supple form, and the graceful outlines of her profile. Then he would be seized by an insane desire to reach the fugitive and speak to her once more, and would go tearing along the brushwood for that purpose. Now and then, in the half light formed by the hanging boughs, he would see rays of golden light, coming straight down to the ground, and resting there lightly like diaphanous apparitions. Sometimes the rustling of birds taking flight, would sound in his ears like the timid frou-frou of a skirt, and Julien, fascinated by the mysterious charm of these indefinite objects, and following the impulse of their mystical suggestions, would fling himself impetuously into the jungle, repeating to him self the words of the "Canticle of Canticles": "I hear the voice of my beloved; behold! she cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills." He would continue to press forward in pursuit of the intangible apparition, until he sank with exhaustion near some stream or fountain. Under the influence of the fever, which was consuming his brain, he would imagine the trickling water to be the song of a feminine voice. He would wind his arms around the young saplings, he would tear the berries from the bushes, pressing them against his thirsty lips, and imagining their odoriferous sweetness to be a fond caress from the loved one.

He would return from these expeditions exhausted but not appeased. Sometimes he would come across Claudet, also returning home from paying his court to Reine Vincart; and the unhappy Julien would scrutinize his rival's countenance, seeking eagerly for some trace of the impressions he had received during the loving interview. His curiosity was nearly always baffled; for Claudet seemed to have left all his gayety and conversational powers at La Thuiliere. During their tete-a-tete meals, he hardly spoke at all, maintaining a reserved attitude and a taciturn countenance. Julien, provoked at this unexpected sobriety, privately accused his cousin of dissimulation, and of trying to conceal his happiness. His jealousy so blinded him that he considered the silence of Claudet as pure hypocrisy not recognizing that it was assumed for the purpose of concealing some unpleasantness rather than satisfaction.

The fact was that Claudet, although rejoicing at the turn matters had taken, was verifying the poet's saying: "Never is perfect happiness our lot." When Julien brought him the good news, and he had flown so joyfully to La Thuiliere, he had certainly been cordially received by Reine, but, nevertheless, he had noticed with surprise an absent and dreamy look in her eyes, which did not agree with his idea of a first interview of lovers. When he wished to express his affection in the vivacious and significant manner ordinarily employed among the peasantry, that is to say, by vigorous embracing and resounding kisses, he met with unexpected resistance.

"Keep quiet!" was the order, "and let us talk rationally!"

He obeyed, although not agreeing in her view of the reserve to be maintained between lovers; but, he made up his mind to return to the charge and triumph over her bashful scruples. In fact, he began again the very next day, and his impetuous ardor encountered the same refusal in the same firm, though affectionate manner. He ventured to complain, telling Reine that she did not love him as she ought.

"If I did not feel friendly toward you," replied the young girl, laconically, "should I have allowed you to talk to me of marriage?"

Then, seeing that he looked vexed and worried, and realizing that she was perhaps treating him too roughly, she continued, more gently:

"Remember, Claudet, that I am living all alone at the farm. That obliges me to have more reserve than a girl whose mother is with her. So you must not be offended if I do not behave exactly as others might, and rest assured that it will not prevent me from being a good wife to you, when we are married."

"Well, now," thought Claudet, as he was returning despondently to Vivey: "I can't help thinking that a little caress now and then wouldn't hurt any one!"

Under these conditions it is not to be supposed he was in a mood to relate any of the details of such meagre lovemaking. His self-love was wounded by Reine's coldness. Having always been "cock-of-the-walk," he could not understand why he had such poor success with the only one about whom he was in earnest. He kept quiet, therefore, hiding his anxiety under the mask of careless indifference. Moreover, a certain primitive instinct of prudence made him circumspect. In his innermost soul, he still entertained doubts of Julien's sincerity. Sometimes he doubted whether his cousin's conduct had not been dictated by the bitterness of rejected love, rather than a generous impulse of affection, and he did not care to reveal Reine's repulse to one whom he vaguely suspected of being a former lover. His simple, ardent nature could not put up with opposition, and he thought only of hastening the day when Reine would belong to him altogether. But, when he broached this subject, he had the mortification to find that she was less impatient than himself.

"There is no hurry," she replied, "our affairs are not in order, our harvests are not housed, and it would be better to wait till the dull season."

In his first moments of joy and effervescence, Claudet had evinced the desire to announce immediately the betrothal throughout the village. This Reine had opposed; she thought they should avoid awakening public curiosity so long beforehand, and she extracted from Claudet a promise to say nothing until the date of the marriage should be settled. He had unwillingly consented, and thus, during the last month, the matter had been dragging on indefinitely:

With Julien de Buxieres, this interminable delay, these incessant comings and goings from the chateau to the farm, as well as the mysterious conduct of the bridegroom-elect, became a subject of serious irritation, amounting almost to obsession. He would have wished the affair hurried up, and the sacrifice consummated without hindrance. He believed that when once the newly-married pair had taken up their quarters at La Thuiliere, the very certainty that Reine belonged in future to another would suffice to effect a radical cure in him, and chase away the deceptive phantoms by which he was pursued.

One evening, as Claudet was returning home, more out of humor and silent than usual, Julien asked him, abruptly:

"Well! how are you getting along? When is the wedding?"

"Nothing is decided yet," replied Claudet, "we have time enough!"

"You think so?" exclaimed de Buxieres, sarcastically; "you have considerable patience for a lover!"

The remark and the tone provoked Claudet.

"The delay is not of my making," returned he.

"Ah!" replied the other, quickly, "then it comes from Mademoiselle Vincart?" And a sudden gleam came into his eyes, as if Claudet's assertion had kindled a spark of hope in his breast. The latter noticed the momentary brightness in his cousin's usually stormy countenance, and hastened to reply:

"Nay, nay; we both think it better to postpone the wedding until the harvest is in."

"You are wrong. A wedding should not be postponed. Besides, this prolonged love-making, these daily visits to the farm-all that is not very proper. It is compromising for Mademoiselle Vincart!"

Julien shot out these remarks with a degree of fierceness and violence that astonished Claudet.

"You think, then," said he, "that we ought to rush matters, and have the wedding before winter?"

"Undoubtedly!"

The next day, at La Thuiliere, the grand chasserot, as he stood in the orchard, watching Reine spread linen on the grass, entered bravely on the subject.

"Reine," said he, coaxingly, "I think we shall have to decide upon a day for our wedding."

She set down the watering-pot with which she was wetting the linen, and looked anxiously at her betrothed.

"I thought we had agreed to wait until the later season. Why do you wish to change that arrangement?"

"That is true; I promised not to hurry you, Reine, but it is beyond me to wait-you must not be vexed with me if I find the time long. Besides, they know nothing, around the village, of our intentions, and my coming here every day might cause gossip and make it unpleasant for you. At any rate, that is the opinion of Monsieur de Buxieres, with whom I was conferring only yesterday evening."

At the name of Julien, Reine frowned and bit her lip.

"Aha!" said she, "it is he who has been advising you?"

"Yes; he says the sooner we are married, the better it will be."

"Why does he interfere in what does not concern him?" said she, angrily, turning her head away. She stood a moment in thought, absently pushing forward the roll of linen with her foot. Then, shrugging her shoulders and raising her head, she said slowly, while still avoiding Claudet's eyes:

"Perhaps you are right-both of you. Well, let it be so! I authorize you to go to Monsieur le Cure and arrange the day with him."

"Oh, thanks, Reine!" exclaimed Claudet, rapturously; "you make me very happy!"

He pressed her hands in his, but though absorbed in his own joyful feelings, he could not help remarking that the young girl was trembling in his grasp. He even fancied that there was a suspicious, tearful glitter in her brilliant eyes.

He left her, however, and repaired at once to the cure's house, which stood near the chateau, a little behind the church.

The servant showed him into a small garden separated by a low wall from the cemetery. He found the Abbe Pernot seated on a stone bench, sheltered by a trellised vine. He was occupied in cutting up pieces of hazel-nuts to make traps for small birds.

"Good-evening, Claudet!" said the cure, without moving from his work; "you find me busy preparing my nets; if you will permit me, I will continue, for I should like to have my two hundred traps finished by this evening. The season is advancing, you know! The birds will begin their migrations, and I should be greatly provoked if I were not equipped in time for the opportune moment. And how is Monsieur de Buxieres? I trust he will not be less good-natured than his deceased cousin, and that he will allow me to spread my snares on the border hedge of his woods. But," added he, as he noticed the flurried, impatient countenance of his visitor, "I forgot to ask you, my dear young fellow, to what happy chance I owe your visit? Excuse my neglect!"

"Don't mention it, Monsieur le Cure. You have guessed rightly. It is a very happy circumstance which brings me. I am about to marry."

"Aha!" laughed the Abbe, "I congratulate you, my dear young friend. This is really delightful news. It is not good for man to be alone, and I am glad to know you must give up the perilous life of a bachelor. Well, tell me quickly the name of your betrothed. Do I know her?"

"Of course you do, Monsieur le Cure; there are few you know so well. It is Mademoiselle Vincart."

"Reine?"

The Abbe flung away the pruning-knife and branch that he was cutting, and gazed at Claudet with a stupefied air. At the same time, his jovial face became shadowed, and his mouth assumed an expression of consternation.

"Yes, indeed, Reine Vincart," repeated Claudet, somewhat vexed at the startled manner of his reverence; "are you surprised at my choice?"

"Excuse me-and-is it all settled?" stammered the Abbe, with bewilderment, "and-and do you really love each other?"

"Certainly; we agree on that point; and I have come here to arrange with you about having the banns published."

"What! already?" murmured the cure, buttoning and unbuttoning the top of his coat in his agitation, "you seem to be in a great hurry to go to work. The union of the man and the woman-ahem-is a serious matter, which ought not to be undertaken without due consideration. That is the reason why the Church has instituted the sacrament of marriage. Hast thou well considered, my son?"

"Why, certainly, I have reflected," exclaimed Claudet with some irritation, "and my mind is quite made up. Once more, I ask you, Monsieur le Cure, are you displeased with my choice, or have you anything to say against Mademoiselle Vincart?"

"I? no, absolutely nothing. Reine is an exceedingly good girl."

"Well, then?"

"Well, my friend, I will go over to-morrow and see your fiancee, and we will talk matters over. I shall act for the best, in the interests of both of you, be assured of that. In the meantime, you will both be united this evening in my prayers; but, for to-day, we shall have to stop where we are. Good-evening, Claudet! I will see you again."

With these enigmatic words, he dismissed the young lover, who returned to the chateau, vexed and disturbed by his strange reception.

The moment the door of the presbytery had closed behind Claudet, the Abbe Pernot, flinging to one side all his preparations, began to pace nervously up and down the principal garden-walk. He appeared

completely unhinged. His features were drawn, through an unusual tension of ideas forced upon him. He had hurriedly caught his skullcap from his head, as if he feared the heat of his meditation might cause a rush of blood to the head. He quickened his steps, then stopped suddenly, folded his arms with great energy, then opened them again abruptly to thrust his hands into the pockets of his gown, searching through them with feverish anxiety, as if he expected to find something which might solve obscure and embarrassing questions.

"Good Lord! Good Lord! What a dreadful piece of business; and right in the bird season, too! But I can say nothing to Claudet. It is a secret that does not belong to me. How can I get out of it? Tutt! tutt! tutt!"

These monosyllabic ejaculations broke forth like the vexed clucking of a frightened blackbird; after which relief, the Abbe resumed his fitful striding up and down the box-bordered alley. This lasted until the hour of twilight, when Augustine, the servant, as soon as the Angelus had sounded, went to inform her master that they were waiting prayers for him in the church. He obeyed the summons, although in a somewhat absent mood, and hurried over the services in a manner which did not contribute to the edification of the assistants. As soon as he got home, he ate his Supper without appetite, mumbled his prayers, and shut himself up in the room he used as a study and workshop. He remained there until the night was far advanced, searching through his scanty library to find two dusty volumes treating of "cases of conscience," which he looked eagerly over by the feeble light of his study lamp. During this laborious search he emitted frequent sighs, and only left off reading occasionally in order to dose himself plentifully with snuff. At last, as he felt that his eyes were becoming inflamed, his ideas conflicting in his brain, and as his lamp was getting low, he decided to go to bed. But he slept badly, turned over at least twenty times, and was up with the first streak of day to say his mass in the chapel. He officiated with more dignity and piety than was his wont; and after reading the second gospel he remained for a long while kneeling on one of the steps of the altar. After he had returned to the sacristy, he divested himself quickly of his sacerdotal robes, reached his room by a passage of communication, breakfasted hurriedly, and putting on his three-cornered hat, and seizing his knotty, cherry-wood cane, he shot out of doors as if he had been summoned to a fire.

Augustine, amazed at his precipitate departure, went up to the attic, and, from behind the shelter of the skylight, perceived her master striding rapidly along the road to Planche-au-Vacher. There she lost sight of him-the underwood was too thick. But, after a few minutes, the gaze of the inquisitive woman was rewarded by the appearance of a dark object emerging from the copse, and defining itself on the bright pasture land beyond. "Monsieur le Cure is going to La Thuiliere," thought she, and with this half-satisfaction she descended to her daily occupations.

It was true, the Abbe Pernot was walking, as fast as he could, to the Vincart farm, as unmindful of the dew that tarnished his shoe-buckles as of the thorns which attacked his calves. He had that within him which spurred him on, and rendered him unconscious of the accidents on his path. Never, during his twenty-five years of priestly office, had a more difficult question embarrassed his conscience. The case was a grave one, and moreover, so urgent that the Abbe was quite at a loss how to proceed. How was it that he never had foreseen that such a combination of circumstances might occur? A priest of a more fervent spirit, who had the salvation of his flock more at heart, could not have been taken so unprepared. Yes; that was surely the cause! The profane occupations in which he had allowed himself to take so much enjoyment, had distracted his watchfulness and obscured his perspicacity. Providence was now punishing him for his lukewarmness, by interposing across his path this stumbling-block, which was probably sent to him as a salutary warning, but which he saw no way of getting over.

While he was thus meditating and reproaching himself, the thrushes were calling to one another from the branches of their favorite trees; whole flights of yellowhammers burst forth from the hedges red with haws; but he took no heed of them and did not even give a single thought to his neglected nests and snares.

He went straight on, stumbling over the juniper bushes, and wondering what he should say when he reached the farm, and how he should begin. Sometimes he addressed himself, thus: "Have I the right to speak? What a revelation! And to a young girl! Oh, Lord, lead me in the straight way of thy truth, and instruct me in the right path!"

As he continued piously repeating this verse of the Psalmist, in order to gain spiritual strength, the gray roofs of La Thuiliere rose before him; he could hear the crowing of the cocks and the lowing of the cows in the stable. Five minutes after, he had pushed open the door of the kitchen where La Guite was arranging the bowls for breakfast.

"Good-morning, Guitiote," said he, in a choking voice; "is Mademoiselle Vincart up?"

"Holy Virgin! Monsieur le Cure! Why, certainly Mademoiselle is up. She was on foot before any of us, and now she is trotting around the orchard. I will go fetch her."

"No, do not stir. I know the way, and I will go and find her myself."

She was in the orchard, was she? The Abbe preferred it should be so; he thought the interview would be less painful, and that the surrounding trees would give him ideas. He walked across the kitchen, descended the steps leading from the ground floor to the garden, and ascended the slope in search of Reine, whom he soon perceived in the midst of a bower formed by clustering filbert-trees.

At sight of the cure, Reine turned pale; he had doubtless come to tell her the result of his interview with Claudet, and what day had been definitely chosen for the nuptial celebration. She had been troubled all night by the reflection that her fate would soon be irrevocably scaled; she had wept, and her eyes betrayed it. Only the day before, she had looked upon this project of marriage, which she had entertained in a moment of anger and injured feeling, as a vague thing, a vaporous eventuality of which the realization was doubtful; now, all was arranged, settled, cruelly certain; there was no way of escaping from a promise which Claudet, alas! was bound to consider a serious one. These thoughts traversed her mind, while the cure was slowly approaching the filbert-trees; she felt her heart throb, and her eyes again filled with tears. Yet her pride would not allow that the Abbe should witness her irresolution and weeping; she made an effort, overcame the momentary weakness, and addressed the priest in an almost cheerful voice:

"Monsieur le Cure, I am sorry that they have made you come up this hill to find me. Let us go back to the farm, and I will offer you a cup of coffee."

"No, my child," replied the Abbe, motioning with his hand that she should stay where she was, "no, thank you! I will not take anything. Remain where you are.

"I wish to talk to you, and we shall be less liable to be disturbed here."

There were two rustic seats under the nut-trees; the cure took one and asked Reine to take the other, opposite to him. There they were, under the thick, verdant branches, hidden from indiscreet passers-by, surrounded by silence, installed as in a confessional.

The morning quiet, the solitude, the half light, all invited meditation and confidence; nevertheless the young girl and the priest sat motionless; both agitated and embarrassed and watching each other without uttering a sound. It was Reine who first broke the silence.

"You have seen Claudet, Monsieur le Cure?"

"Yes, yes!" replied the Abbe, sighing deeply.

"He-spoke to you of our-plans," continued the young girl, in a quavering voice, "and you fixed the day?"

"No, my child, we settled nothing. I wanted to see you first, and converse with you about something very important."

The Abbe hesitated, rubbed a spot of mud off his soutane, raised his shoulders like a man lifting a heavy burden, then gave a deep cough.

"My dear child," continued he at length, prudently dropping his voice a tone lower, "I will begin by repeating to you what I said yesterday to Claudet Sejournant: the marriage, that is to say, the indissoluble union, of man and woman before God, is one of the most solemn and serious acts of life. The Church has constituted it a sacrament, which she administers only on certain formal conditions. Before entering into this bond, one ought, as we are taught by Holy Writ, to sound the heart, subject the very inmost of the soul to searching examinations. I beg of you, therefore, answer my questions freely, without false shame, just as if you were at the tribunal of repentance. Do you love Claudet?"

Reine trembled. This appeal to her sincerity renewed all her perplexities and scruples. She raised her full, glistening eyes to the cure, and replied, after a slight hesitation:

"I have a sincere affection for Claudet-and-much esteem."

"I understand that," replied the priest, compressing his lips, "but-excuse me if I press the matter-has the engagement you have made with him been determined simply by considerations of affection and suitableness, or by more interior and deeper feelings?"

"Pardon, Monsieur le Cure," returned Reine, coloring, "it seems to me that a sentiment of friendship, joined to a firm determination to prove a faithful and devoted wife, should be, in your eyes as they are in mine, a sufficient assurance that-"

"Certainly, certainly, my dear child; and many husbands would be contented with less. However, it is not only a question of Claudet's happiness, but of yours also. Come now! let me ask you: is your affection for young Sejournant so powerful that in the event of any unforeseen circumstance happening, to break off the marriage, you would be forever unhappy?"

"Ah!" replied Reine, more embarrassed than ever, "you ask too grave a question, Monsieur le Cure! If it were broken off without my having to reproach myself for it, it is probable that I should find consolation in time."

"Very good! Consequently, you do not love Claudet, if I may take the word love in the sense understood by people of the world. You only like, you do not love him? Tell me. Answer frankly."

"Frankly, Monsieur le Cure, no!"

"Thanks be to God! We are saved!" exclaimed the Abbe, drawing a long breath, while Reine, amazed, gazed at him with wondering eyes.

"I do not understand you," faltered she; "what is it?"

"It is this: the marriage can not take place."

"Can not? why?"

"It is impossible, both in the eyes of the Church and in those of the world."

The young girl looked at him with increasing amazement.

"You alarm me!" cried she. "What has happened? What reasons hinder me from marrying Claudet?"

"Very powerful reasons, my dear child. I do not feel at liberty to reveal them to you, but you must know that I am not speaking without authority, and that you may rely on the statement I have made."

Reine remained thoughtful, her brows knit, her countenance troubled.

"I have every confidence in you, Monsieur le Cure, but-"

"But you hesitate about believing me," interrupted the Abbe, piqued at not finding in one of his flock the blind obedience on which he had reckoned. "You must know, nevertheless, that your pastor has no interest in deceiving you, and that when he seeks to influence you, he has in view only your well-being in this world and in the next."

"I do not doubt your good intentions," replied Reine, with firmness, "but a promise can not be annulled without sufficient cause. I have given my word to Claudet, and I am too loyal at heart to break faith with him without letting him know the reason."

"You will find some pretext."

"And supposing that Claudet would be content with such a pretext, my own conscience would not be," objected the young girl, raising her clear, honest glance toward the priest; "your words have entered my soul, they are troubling me now, and it will be worse when I begin to think this matter over again. I can not bear uncertainty. I must see my way clearly before me. I entreat you then, Monsieur le Cure, not to do things by halves. You have thought it your duty to tell me I can not wed with Claudet; now tell me why not?"

"Why not? why not?" repeated the Abbe, angrily. "I distress myself in telling you that I am not authorized to satisfy your unwise curiosity! You must humble your intelligence and believe without arguing."

"In matters of faith, that may be possible," urged Reine, obstinately, "but my marriage has nothing to do with discussing the truths of our holy religion. I therefore respectfully ask to be enlightened, Monsieur le Cure; otherwise-"

"Otherwise?" repeated the Abby Pernot, inquiringly, rolling his eyes uneasily.

"Otherwise, I shall keep my word respectably, and I shall marry Claudet."

"You will not do that?" said he, imploringly, joining his hands as if in supplication; "after being openly warned by me, you dare not burden your soul with such a terrible responsibility. Come, my child, does not the possibility of committing a mortal sin alarm your conscience as a Christian?"

"I can not sin if I am in ignorance, and as to my conscience, Monsieur le Cure, do you think it is acting like a Christian to alarm without enlightening?"

"Is that your last word?" inquired the Abbe, completely aghast.

"It is my last word," she replied, vehemently, moved both by a feeling of self-respect, and a desire to force the hand of her interlocutor.

"You are a proud, obstinate girl!" exclaimed the Abbe, rising abruptly, "you wish to compel me to reveal this secret! Well, have your way! I will tell you. May the harm which may result from it fall lightly upon you, and do not hereafter reproach me for the pain I am about to inflict upon you."

He checked himself for a moment, again joined his hands, and raising his eyes toward heaven ejaculated fervently, as if repeating his devotions in the oratory: "O Lord, thou knowest I would have spared her this bitter cup, but, between two evils, I have avoided the greater. If I forfeit my solemn promise, consider, O Lord, I pray thee, that I do it to avoid disgrace and exposure for her, and deign to forgive thy servant!"

He seated himself again, placed one of his hands before his eyes, and began, in a hollow voice, Reine, all the while gazing nervously at him:

"My child, you are forcing me to violate a secret which has been solemnly confided to me. It concerns a matter not usually talked about before young girls, but you are, I believe, already a woman in heart and understanding, and you will hear resignedly what I have to tell you, however much the recital may trouble you. I have already informed you that your marriage with Claudet is impossible. I now declare that it would be criminal, for the reason that incest is an abomination."

"Incest!" repeated Reine, pale and trembling, "what do you mean?"

"I mean," sighed the cure, "that you are Claudet's sister, not having the same mother, but the same father: Claude-Odouart de Buxieres."

"Oh! you are mistaken! that cannot be!"

"I am stating facts. It grieves me to the heart, my dear child, that in speaking of your deceased mother, I should have to reveal an error over which she lamented, like David, with tears of blood. She confessed her sin, not to the priest, but to a friend, a few days before her death. In justice to her memory, I ought to add that, like most of the unfortunates seduced by this untamable de Buxieres, she succumbed to his wily misrepresentations. She was a victim rather than an accomplice. The man himself acknowledged as much in a note entrusted to my care, which I have here."

And the Abbe' drew from his pocket an old, worn letter, the writing yellow with age, and placed it before Reine. In this letter, written in Claude de Buxieres's coarse, sprawling hand, doubtless in reply to a reproachful appeal from his mistress, he endeavored to offer some kind of honorable amends for the violence he had used, and to calm Madame Vincart's remorse by promising, as was his custom, to watch over the future of the child which should be born to her.

"That child was yourself, my poor girl," continued the Abbe, picking up the letter which Reine had thrown down, after reading it, with a gesture of sickened disgust.

She appeared not to hear him. She had buried her face in her hands, to hide the flushing of her cheeks, and sat motionless, altogether crushed beneath the shameful revelation; convulsive sobs and tremblings occasionally agitating her frame.

"You can now understand," continued the priest, "how the announcement of this projected marriage stunned and terrified me. I could not confide to Claudet the reason for my stupefaction, and I should have been thankful if you could have understood so that I could have spared you this cruel mortification, but you would not take any intimation from me. And now, forgive me for inflicting this cross upon you, and bear it with courage, with Christian fortitude."

"You have acted as was your duty," murmured Reine, sadly, "and I thank you, Monsieur le Cure!"

"And will you promise me to dismiss Claudet at once-today?"

"I promise you."

The Abbe Pernot advanced to take her hand, and administer some words of consolation; but she evaded, with a stern gesture, the good man's pious sympathy, and escaped toward the dwelling.

The spacious kitchen was empty when she entered. The shutters had been closed against the sun, and it had become cool and pleasant. Here and there, among the copper utensils, and wherever a chance ray made a gleam of light, the magpie was hopping about, uttering short, piercing cries. In the recess of the niche containing the colored prints, sat the old man Vincart, dozing, in his usual supine attitude, his hands spread out, his eyelids drooping, his mouth half open. At the sound of the door, his eyes opened wide. He rather guessed at, than saw, the entrance of the young girl, and his pallid lips began their accustomed refrain: "Reine! Rei-eine!"

Reine flew impetuously toward the paralytic old man, threw herself on her knees before him, sobbing bitterly, and covered his hands with kisses. Her caresses were given in a more respectful, humble, contrite manner than ever before.

"Oh! father-father!" faltered she; "I loved you always, I shall love you now with all my heart and soul!"

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