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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Nameless Castle - Part 1. Cythera's Brigade - Chapter 1
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The Nameless Castle - Part 1. Cythera's Brigade - Chapter 1 Post by :olecram Category :Long Stories Author :Maurus Jokai Date :May 2012 Read :464

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The Nameless Castle - Part 1. Cythera's Brigade - Chapter 1

PART I. CYTHERA'S BRIGADE
CHAPTER I

A snow-storm was raging with such vigor that any one who chanced to be passing along the silent thoroughfare might well have believed himself in St. Petersburg instead of in Paris, in the Rue des Ours, a side street leading into the Avenue St. Martin. The street, never a very busy one, was now almost deserted, as was also the avenue, as it was yet too early for vehicles of various sorts to be returning from the theatre.

The street-lamps on the corners had not yet been lighted. In front of one of those old-fashioned houses which belong to a former Paris a heavy iron lantern swung, creaking in the wind, and, battling with the darkness, shed flickering rays of light on the child who, with a faded red cotton shawl wrapped about her, was cowering in the deep doorway of the house. From time to time there would emerge from the whirling snowflakes the dark form of a man clad as a laborer. He would walk leisurely toward the doorway in which the shivering child was concealed, but would turn when he came to the circle of light cast on the snowy pavement by the swinging lantern, and retrace his steps, thus appearing and disappearing at regular intervals. Surely a singular time and place for a promenade! The clocks struck ten--the hour which found every honest dweller within the Quartier St. Martin at home. On this evening, however, two belated citizens came from somewhere, their hurrying footsteps noiseless in the deep snow, their approach announced only by the lantern carried by one of them--an article without which no respectable citizen at the beginning of the century would have ventured on the street after nightfall. One of the pedestrians was tall and broad-shouldered, with a handsome countenance, which bore the impress of an inflexible determination; a dimple indented his smoothly shaven chin. His companion, and his senior by several years, was a slender, undersized man.

When the two men came abreast of the doorway illumined by the swinging lamp, it was evident that they had arrived at their destination. They halted and prepared to enter the house.

At this moment the child crouching in the snow began to sob.

"See here!" exclaimed the taller of the two gentlemen. "Here is a little girl."

"Why, so there is!" in turn exclaimed the elder, stooping and letting the light of his lantern fall on the child's face. "What are you doing here, little one?" he asked in a kindly tone.

"I want my mama! I want my mama!" wailed the child, with a fresh burst of sobs.

"Who is your mama?" queried the younger man.

"My mama is the countess."

"And where does she live?"

"In the palace."

"Naturally! In which avenue is the palace?"

"I--don't--know."

"A true child of Paris!" in an undertone exclaimed the elder gentleman. "She knows that her mother is a countess, and that she lives in a palace; but she has never been told the name of the street in which is her home."

"How come you to be here, little countess?" inquired the younger man.

"Diana can tell you," was the reply.

"And who may Diana be?"

"Why, who else but mama's Diana?"

"Allow me to question her," here interposed the elder man. Then, to the child: "Diana is the person who helps you put on your clothes, is she not?"

"It is just the other way: she took off my clothes--just see; I have nothing on but this petticoat and this hideous shawl."

As she spoke she flung back the faded shawl and revealed how scantily she was clad.

"You poor child!" compassionately ejaculated the young man; and when he saw that her thin morocco slippers were buried in the snow, he lifted her hastily in his arms. "You are half frozen."

"But why did Diana leave you half clothed in this manner?" pursued the elder man. "Why did she undress you? Can't you tell us that much?"

"Mama slapped her this morning."

"Ah! then Diana is a servant?"

"Why, of course; what else could she be?"

"Well, she might be a goddess or a hound, you know," smilingly returned the old gentleman.

"When mama went to the opera, this evening," explained the little one, "she ordered Diana to take me to the children's ball at the marquis's. Instead, she brought me to this street, made me get out of the carriage, took off my silk ball-gown and all my pretty ornaments, and left me here in this doorway--I am sure I don't know why, for there is n't any music here."

"It is well she left this old shawl with you, else your mama would not have a little countess to tell the tale to-morrow," observed the elder man. Then, turning to his companion, he added in a lower tone: "What are we to do with her?"

"We can't leave her here; that would be inhuman," was the reply, in the same cautious tone.

"But we can't take her in; it would be a great risk."

"What is there to fear from an innocent prattler who cannot even remember her mother's name?"

"We might take her to the conciergerie," suggested the elder gentleman.

"_I think we had better not disturb the police when they are asleep," in a significant tone responded his companion.

"That is true; but we can't take the child to our apartments. You know that we--"

"I have an idea!" suddenly interposed the young man. "This innocent child has been placed in our way by Providence; by aiding her we may accomplish more easily the task we have undertaken."

"I understand," assented the elder; "we can accomplish two good deeds at one and the same time. Allow me to go up-stairs first; while you are locking the door I will arrange matters up there so that you may bring this poor little half-frozen creature directly with you." Then, to the child: "Don't be afraid, little countess; nothing shall harm you. To-morrow morning perhaps you will remember your mama's name, or else she will send some one in search of you."

He opened the door, and ran hastily up the worn staircase.

When the young man, with the little girl in his arms, reached the door at the head of the stairs, his companion met him, and, with a meaning glance, announced that everything was ready for the reception of their small guest. They entered a dingy anteroom, which led, through heavily curved antique sliding-doors, into a vaulted saloon hung with faded tapestry.

Here the child exhibited the first signs of alarm. "Are you going to kill me?" she cried out in terror.

The old gentleman laughed merrily, and said:

"Why, surely you don't take us to be _croquemitaines who devour little children; do you?"

"Have you got a little girl of your own?" queried the little one, suddenly.

"No, my dear," replied the old gentleman, visibly affected by the question. "I have no wife; therefore I cannot have a little girl."

"But my mama has no husband, and she 's got me," prattled the child.

"That is different, my dear. But if I have not got a little girl, I know very well what to do for one."

As he spoke he drew off the child's wet slippers and stockings, rubbed her feet with a flannel cloth, then laid her on the bed which stood in the alcove.

"Why, how warm this bed is!" cried the child; "just as if some one had been sleeping here."

The old man's face betrayed some confusion as he responded:

"Might I not have warmed it with a warming-pan?"

"But where did you get hot coals?"

"Well, well, what an inquisitive little creature it is!" muttered the old man. Then, aloud: "My dear, don't you say your prayers before going to sleep?"

"No, indeed! Mama says we shall have plenty of time for that when we grow old."

"An enlightened woman, truly! Well, I dare say, my little maid, your convictions will not prevent you from drinking a cup of egg-punch, and partaking of a bit of pasty or a small biscuit?"

At mention of these dainties the child's countenance brightened; and while she was eating the repast with evident relish, the younger man rummaged from somewhere a large, beautifully dressed doll. All thought of fear now vanished from the small guest's mind. She clasped the toy in her arms, and, having finished her light meal, began to sing a lullaby, to which she very soon fell asleep herself.

"She is sleeping soundly," whispered the elder man, softly drawing together the faded damask bed-curtains, and walking on tiptoe back to the fireplace, where his companion had fanned the fire into a fresh blaze.

"It is high time," was the low and rather impatient response. "We can't stop here much longer. Do you know what has happened to the duke?"

"Yes, I know. He has been sentenced to death. To-morrow he will be executed. What have you discovered?"

"A fox on the trail of a lion!" harshly replied the young man. "He who aroused so many hopes is, after all, nothing more than an impostor--Leon Maria Hervagault, the son of a tailor at St. Leu. The true dauphin, the son of Louis XVI., really died a natural death, after he had served a three years' apprenticeship as shoemaker under Master Simho; and in order that a later generation might not be able to secure his ashes, he was buried in quick-lime in the Chapel of St. Margarethe."

"They were not so scrupulous concerning monsieur,"(1) observed the old man, restlessly pacing the floor. "I received a letter from my agent to-day; he writes that monsieur was secretly shot at Dillingen."

(Footnote 1: Count de Provence, afterward Louis XVIII.)

"What! He, too? Then--"

"Hush!" cautiously interposed the elder man. "That child might not be asleep."

"And if she were awake, what could she understand?"

"True; but we must be cautious." He ceased his restless promenade, and came close to the young man's side. "Everything is at an end here," he added in a lower tone. "We must remove our treasure to a more secure hiding-place--this very night, indeed, if it be possible."

"It is possible," assented his companion. "The plan of flight was arranged two days ago. The most difficult part was to get away from this house. It is watched day and night. Chance, however, has come to our aid."

"I understand," nodded the old gentleman, glancing significantly toward the bed.

"The most serious question now is, where shall we find a secure hiding-place? Even England is not safe. The bullets of Dillingen can reach to that country! Indeed, wherever there are police no secret is safe."

"I 'll tell you something," after a moment's deliberation observed the elder man. "I know of a country in Europe where order prevails, and where there are no police spies; and, what is more, the place of which I speak is beyond the range of a gunshot!"

"I confess I am curious to learn where such a place may be found," with an incredulous smile returned the young man.

"Fetch the map, and I will point it out to you. Afterward we will arrange your route toward it." The two men spread a large map of Europe on the table, and, bending over it, were soon deeply absorbed in examining it, the while exchanging whispered remarks.

At last they seemed to have agreed on something. The map was folded up and thrust into the younger man's pocket.

"I shall start at once," he said, with an air of decision.

"That is well," with evident satisfaction assented his companion. "And take with you also the steel casket. In it are all the necessary documents, some articles of clothing on which the mother with her own hands embroidered the well-known symbol, and a million of francs in English bank-notes. These, however, you will not use unless compelled to do so by extreme necessity. You will receive annually a sufficient sum from a certain banking-house which will supply all your wants. Have our two trusty friends been apprised?"

"Yes; they await me hourly."

"So soon as you are beyond the French boundary you may communicate with me in the way we have agreed upon. Until I hear from you I shall be in a terror of anxiety. I am sorry I cannot accompany you, but I am already suspected. You are, as yet, free from suspicion--are not yet registered in the black book!"

"You may trust my skill to evade pursuit," said the young man, producing from a secret cupboard a casket richly ornamented with gold.

"I do not doubt your skill, or your ability to accomplish the undertaking; but the task is not a suitable one for so young a man. Have you considered the fate which awaits you?"

"I have considered everything."

"You will be buried; and, what is worse, you will be the keeper of your own prison."

"I shall be a severe jailer, I promise you," with a grim smile responded the young man.

"Jester! You forget your twenty-six years! And who can tell how long you may be buried alive?"

"Have no fear for me. I do not dread the task. Those in power now will one day be overthrown."

"But when the child, who is only twelve years old now, becomes in three or four years a blooming maiden--what then? Already she is fond of you; then she will love you. You cannot hinder it; and yet, you will not even dare to dream of returning her love. Have you thought of this also?"

"I shall look upon myself as the inhabitant of a different planet," answered the young man.

"Your hand, my friend! You have undertaken a noble task--one that is greater than that of the captive knight who cut off his own foot, that his sovereign, who was chained to him, might escape--"

"Pray say no more about me," interposed his companion. "Is the child asleep?"

"This one is; the one in the other room is awake."

"Then let us go to her and tell her what we have decided." He lifted the two-branched candlestick from the table; his companion carefully closed the iron doors of the fireplace; then the two went into the adjoining chamber, leaving the room they had quitted in darkness.

The elder gentleman had made a mistake: "this" child was _not asleep. She had listened attentively, half sitting up in bed, to as much of the conversation as she could hear.

A ray of light penetrated through the keyhole. The little girl sprang nimbly from the bed, ran to the door, and peered through the tiny aperture. Suddenly footsteps came toward the door. When it opened, however, the little eavesdropper was back underneath the covers of the bed. The old gentleman entered the room. He had no candle. He left the door open, walked noiselessly to the bed, and drew aside the curtains to see if "this" child was still asleep. The long-drawn, regular breathing convinced him. Then he took something from the chair beside the bed, and went back into the other room. The object he had taken from the chair was the faded red shawl in which the stray child had been wrapped. He did not close the door of the adjoining chamber, for the candles had been extinguished and both rooms were now dark.

To the listening child in the bed, however, it seemed as if voices were whispering near her--as if she heard a stifled sob. Then cautious footsteps crossed the floor, and after an interval of silence the street door opened and closed.

Very soon afterward a light was struck in the adjoining room, and the elder man came through the doorway--alone.

He flung back the doors of the fireplace, and stirred the embers; then he proceeded to perform a singular task. First he tossed a number of letters and papers into the flames, then several dainty articles of girls' clothing. He watched them until they had burned to ashes; then he flung himself into an arm-chair; his head sank forward on his breast, in which position he sat motionless for several hours.

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PART I. CYTHERA'S BRIGADE CHAPTER IIWhen the younger of the two men stepped into the street he carried in his arms a little girl wrapped in a faded red shawl, to whom he was speaking encouragingly, in tones loud enough for any passer-by to hear: "I know the little countess will be able to find her mama's palace; for there is a fountain in front of it in which there is a stone man with a three-pronged fork, and a stone lady with a fish-tail! Oh, yes; we shall be sure to find it; and very soon we shall be with
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