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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDr. Dumany's Wife - Part 1 - Chapter 5. A Republican Countess
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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 1 - Chapter 5. A Republican Countess Post by :redeagle Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :3241

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Dr. Dumany's Wife - Part 1 - Chapter 5. A Republican Countess


"Madame la Comtesse!" A Peruvian or Argentine countess? Or have these plutocrats of the great republic some special distinguishing titles, such as "Silver King," "Railway Prince," etc., and was this exotic countess the daughter of some such lord of the money market? At any rate, I had to obey her polite commands, so, throwing away my cigar, I bowed to Mr. Dumany and followed the lead of the valet.

In crossing a long suite of tastefully-furnished rooms, I noticed the entire absence of family pictures. They had no ancestors, or did not boast of them. No farthingaled, white-wigged ladies in hooped skirts and trailing brocade robes; no mail-clad, chivalrous-looking gentlemen, with marshals' staffs, keys, and like emblems of rank and high station; or else these, too, had gone over to New York to subdue with their haughty grandeur the eyes of less high-born mortals.

There was something else I missed in these beautiful chambers--the usual obtrusive, caressed and pampered pet animal of a great lady. No paroquet, no monkey, no little, silken-haired lap-dog, no St. Bernard or Newfoundland dog, no cat, not even a little canary bird, was to be met with; and not a single flower, real or artificial, greeted the eye.

At last we came to a room with beautiful heavy brocaded draperies, evidently veiling the entrance into some other apartment. As the servant stepped up and drew the hanging aside, I could not suppress an exclamation of admiration and surprise; and for a moment I stood transfixed at the lovely and exquisite scene, deeming that fairyland had opened to me, and that Queen Mab was expecting me in her own enchanting bower.

The room which I now entered resembled to some extent the Blue Grotto of Capri. It was flooded with a magic blue light. Just opposite to the entrance was some kind of bower, with honeysuckle, woodbine, and other blooming and fragrant vines intertwined. This bower was prolonged in the rear into a spacious and seemingly endless tropical garden, with wonderful blooming exotic plants and trees; and in this East Indian paradise, gaily-plumed, sweet-voiced birds of different size and colour were chirping, hopping, and hovering above their nests, among evergreen bushes and glorious flowers. The whole winter-garden received its light from above, and this light, falling through large panes of blue glass, threw that peculiar, fairy, grotto-like hue over the little boudoir in front.

To prevent the luscious odour of the winter-garden from pervading the air of the boudoir and becoming oppressive, a fine, translucent film separated the bower from the garden. But this film was not of glass or any other transparent but solid substance; it consisted of a beautiful, clear waterfall, transparent as a veil, and noiseless as a fine summer rain. At the touch of a spring, this softly-pouring waterfall might be shut off and the entrance into the winter-garden thrown wide.

In the little boudoir, at the opening of the bower, stood a couch, and opposite this a little settee and two small gilded and embroidered chairs; while two large sculptured frames, one containing a splendid mirror, the other a life-size portrait of Mr. Dumany, completed the appointments.

Mrs. Dumany, or, as she was called, the countess, wore a loose morning-dress of raw silk, with rich embroidery. Her rich, dark hair was uncovered and wound around her head in three thick coils, like a tiara.

Her graceful figure was as slender as that of a girl, and she looked so young and childlike that no living man would have supposed her to be the mother of five children.

In the peculiar blue light of the boudoir her naturally fair face appeared so white that I was almost startled. It was just as though some marble or alabaster statue had moved, looked at me with those large dark-blue eyes, spoken to me with those finely-chiselled, ruby-coloured lips.

"Pray pardon me for troubling you to call on me," she said, in fluent and precise French, although with a somewhat foreign accent and manner of speech; "I should not have done it were you not the only trustworthy person from whom I can learn the necessary particulars of the terrible Rossberg accident. My husband, as perhaps you already know, has invited two gentlemen to dine with us. One is a government officer of high rank, the other a kind and benevolent priest. My husband's intention is to spend a considerable sum of money for distribution among those who were injured in the Rossberg catastrophe, or their destitute relatives. They shall at least not suffer actual want, and although I daresay that money is a poor compensation for a lost or crippled husband and father, or son and brother, still it is the only possible consolation we can offer them, and in providing for their own future and that of their dependents, we at least relieve their hearts of one burden. Of this my husband wants to talk to the government official. The priest was invited by me, and I want him to hold a requiem for the souls of those who perished, and to superintend the erection of a memorial chapel at the place of the terrible accident. Mr. Dumany is ungrudging in his charity, and ready for any sacrifice of money; but, you see, we know really nothing about the particulars. How many were lost, and how many died afterward in consequence of their injuries? Who were they? Of what nation, faith, quality, and circumstances? How many were saved, and in what condition? Have they somebody to attend to them, to support them in case of need? And then those belonging to ourselves, our dutiful servants, I might call them our true and faithful friends, has not one of them escaped? Have they all perished together? You can tell me best, and therefore I made bold to call you to me. Do not hesitate, pray, but tell me all that happened, and in what manner it happened, from the dreadful beginning to the pitiful end--the whole catastrophe, with all the particulars you can recall to memory."

"Madam," said I, "pray do not wish that. These particulars are much too dreadful to relate--much too horrible for the ear of a lady. It requires strong nerves and an iron heart to listen to such a tale as that."

"And what that?" she replied. "True, my nerves are not a bit less sensitive than those of any other woman, but I have learned to suppress them--to hold them down. Never fear me! Never spare me! If the scourge hurts me, I shall think it a penance. Go on! You hold the scourge--strike! Go on, I say!"

There was an impatient, almost fierce resolution in her voice, and I obeyed.

If this woman regarded the act of listening to the dreadful tale I had to tell as a penance, then, indeed, she allowed it to become a torture. I was obliged to recount the smallest incident of the ghastly event, and she drank in every word, shuddering as at some deadly poison. Again and again she questioned me with the skill and zeal of a professional cross-examiner. Nor would she let me omit a syllable. And when at the most fearful and heartrending point, her soft, dimpled chin sunk down on her breast, and her fair, babyish hand knocked at the tender bosom "_Mea culpa_! Oh, _mea culpa_!"

When she heard that the uncoupling of the parlour car had caused a delay, she groaned. "Then all this terrible mishap is due to our own vanity?" she cried. "A consequence of our own presumptuous pride! If our dependents had sat with the boy in a common carriage with other decent travellers, the train would have passed the fatal spot long before the landslide was in motion! But, of course, the Silver King's son is far too precious a creature to breathe the same air with other creatures of God's making. He must needs have a separate parlour to himself! And this sinful, detestable vanity of ours must cost the lives of so many good, brave, happy, and useful persons. Oh, hell itself must mock at our folly!"

Now this commination, unexpected as it was from a lady of wealth and position, was not altogether unwarranted, and so I went on.

As I drew near to the catastrophe I could hear the beating of her heart, and her breath came short and gasping. When I related how I had caught hold of the governess's hand, she was trembling, and an almost deadly pallor overspread her white face. "Alice! oh, Alice!" she cried; and when I told her how the lady ran back to the coupe for her bonnet, just at the last moment for escaping, she broke out into a painful hysterical laugh. "Just like her! Her bonnet! Yes; ha! ha! She would have come down to dinner in her bonnet, the foolish pride! She was so afraid to show her bare ears to a man! Oh! oh! Alice!"

At last the tears came to her relief, and she sobbed pitifully. "If you had only known her goodness," she cried, "her self-sacrificing devotion, her pure, kind heart! She was the best friend I ever had, and how she loved that unhappy boy! She was more his mother than I, for she gave him all a mother's love and all a mother's care and attention. Why did I let her go with him? Why did I not keep her back from him?"

I told her how the poor woman's first thought had been the safety of the child.

"And you have not seen her again? You do not know what has become of her?"

I denied having seen her again. I could not describe to her the horrid spectacle of the poor woman as I had seen her last, when taken by the brave firemen from that infernal pile; for, strong as she forced herself to appear, this would have been more than she could bear; so I told her that the relief train started with the rescued before we could learn anything of the rest; but of the certainty of their death there could not be the slightest doubt.

"What a misfortune!" she sighed, wringing her hands. "Why, that boy had an escort with him like a prince royal! The honest Dr. Mayer, such a refined, generous young man; and Tom, the negro, my best servant, and the truest! He saved me from an alligator once, and killed him with an iron bar. He was severely wounded by the ferocious reptile, yet he laughed at his pains."

I remembered the grin on his broad black face in the moment of death, as I had seen him at the carriage window. He had laughed then also.

"And poor little Georgie?" she asked again, "James's playfellow and foster-brother? Georgie's mother was James's nurse. How she begged of me to take care of her darling, to bring him up well, to make a priest of him! And how well I have kept that promise! I have made more of him than a priest: he is a saint, and a martyr. Oh, _mea culpa_! _mea culpa_!"

When I had explained to her the circumstances which had made all attempts at rescue impossible for us, and afterward futile, she nodded. "I know it," she said. "On that evening I had not said my prayers. We dined out late, and spent the evening there. I could not come home to pray with my children, and I could not say my prayers there. I felt the heavy load on my heart, and once for a moment, when I was not observed by anybody, I heaved a sigh and said, 'God bless us!' It must have been at the moment of the catastrophe, for my heart ached with some vague and gloomy presentiment. Oh, me! our neglected prayer, and such a fearful chastisement! Tell me! Who is that terrible being that watches us so relentlessly, and if he catches us napping but once, hurls down those we love into death and destruction?"

Her marble-white face, her large wide-open eyes, gave her the look of a spirit.

"Perhaps," said I, "the single blessing you asked saved the life of your dear child. Let this thought comfort you."

"James?" she said. "This child of sin and misfortune? Why, it was because he was on that train that all those pure and good people had to die! Oh, accursed was the hour of his birth! No, no; he is not accursed. I--I, his mother, that gave birth to him, I am guilty! He is innocent; he could not help it. Oh, _mea culpa_! _mea culpa_!"

She was beating her breast, and rocking herself to and fro, uttering her incessant "_Mea culpa_!" "Tell me more," she said again, presently; "show me more dreadful sights, that I may suffer more. I yearn for it; it will do my soul good--it is like purgatory. Go on!"

I took good care not to feed this religious frenzy further. On the contrary, I spoke of the practical Englishman and his performances, and of the artist who had sat there among all the terrible havoc and had drawn sketch after sketch.

"That picture we must secure, at whatever cost," she said, eagerly. "It shall be the altar-piece of the chapel which we are about to raise in memory of the tragic event and of the souls of the slain."

I had formed my own opinion of Mrs Dumany's state of mind. No doubt she was mentally deranged, and her special craze was religious monomania. From this arose the deep melancholy which held her own innocent babe responsible for the misfortune of others. This made the child repugnant to the mother, and, no doubt, this was at the bottom of that remarkable mutual estrangement between mother and child.

I tried to quiet her. I told her that in a very short period a great many serious catastrophes, such as frequent earthquakes, great inundations, and similar unfortunate and most terrible events, had shocked the world and buried whole cities, destroyed the lives and fortunes of thousands upon thousands of happy and innocent persons. Even this Rossberg catastrophe had been preceded by another at the same spot, about the beginning of the present century. Such catastrophes were by no means to be considered as a punishment from God Almighty, Who is far too magnanimous to visit the sins of the guilty upon the heads of the innocent, but simply as the outcome of geological and meteorological phases of our globe, depending upon natural laws. If anybody was really to be blamed for the present misfortune, it must be the engineer who had planned and erected that insufficient barrier instead of a strong bastion.

Mr. Dumany's entrance interrupted our painful conversation. He came on the pretence that letters and newspapers had arrived for me, and with that he handed me a copy of the _Hon_.

"But I had them addressed to the Hotel d'Espagne," I said.

"They have been already informed that you are here," he answered; and then, turning to his wife, he said--

"Have you drunk deep enough of the bitter cup? or do you thirst for more of its contents?"

His voice was soft and tender, and the wife threw both her arms around the husband's neck, and, burying her face on his breast, she wept bitterly.

I took my journal, and, without making my excuses to the lady, I silently stole out of the room.

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