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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAn Historical Mystery (the Gondreville Mystery) - Part 2 - Chapter 11. Wise Counsel
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An Historical Mystery (the Gondreville Mystery) - Part 2 - Chapter 11. Wise Counsel Post by :tripro Category :Long Stories Author :Honore De Balzac Date :May 2012 Read :1783

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An Historical Mystery (the Gondreville Mystery) - Part 2 - Chapter 11. Wise Counsel


After peace was concluded between France and Austria, towards the end of the month of February, 1806, a relative, whose influence had been employed for the reinstatement of the Simeuse brothers, and who was destined later to give them signal proofs of family attachment, the ci-devant Marquis de Chargeboeuf, whose estates extended from the department of the Seine-et-Marne to that of the Aube, arrived one morning at Cinq-Cygne in a species of caleche which was then named in derision a _berlingot_. When this shabby carriage was driven past the windows the inhabitants of the chateau, who were at breakfast, were convulsed with laughter; but when the bald head of the old man was seen issuing from behind the leather curtain of the vehicle Monsieur d'Hauteserre told his name, and all present rose instantly to receive and do honor to the head of the house of Chargeboeuf.

"We have done wrong to let him come to us," said the Marquis de Simeuse to his brother and the d'Hauteserres; "we ought to have gone to him and made our acknowledgements."

A servant, dressed as a peasant, who drove the horses from a seat on a level with the body of the carriage, slipped his cartman's whip into a coarse leather socket, and got down from the box to assist the marquis from the carriage; but Adrien and the younger de Simeuse prevented him, unbuttoned the leather apron, and helped the old man out in spite of his protestations. This gentleman of the old school chose to consider his yellow _berlingot with its leather curtains a most convenient and excellent equipage. The servant, assisted by Gothard, unharnessed the stout horses with shining flanks, accustomed no doubt to do as much duty at the plough as in a carriage.

"In spite of this cold weather! Why, you are a knight of the olden time," said Laurence, to her visitor, taking his arm and leading him into the salon.

"What has he come for?" thought old d'Hauteserre.

Monsieur de Chargeboeuf, a handsome old gentleman of sixty-six, in light-colored breeches, his small weak legs encased in colored stockings, wore powder, pigeon-wings and a queue. His green cloth hunting-coat with gold buttons was braided and frogged with gold. His white waistcoat glittered with gold embroidery. This apparel, still in vogue among old people, became his face, which was not unlike that of Frederick the Great. He never put on his three-cornered hat lest he should destroy the effect of the half-moon traced upon his cranium by a layer of powder. His right hand, resting on a hooked cane, held both cane and hat in a manner worthy of Louis XIV. The fine old gentleman took off his wadded silk pelisse and seated himself in an armchair, holding the three-cornered hat and the cane between his knees in an attitude the secret of which has never been grasped by any but the roues of Louis XV.'s court, an attitude which left the hands free to play with a snuff-box, always a precious trinket. Accordingly the marquis drew from the pocket of his waistcoat, which was closed by a flap embroidered in gold arabesques, a sumptuous snuff-box. While fingering his own pinch and offering the box around him with another charming gesture accompanied with kindly smiles, he noticed the pleasure which his visit gave. He seemed then to comprehend why these young _emigres had been remiss in their duty towards him, and to be saying to himself, "When we are making love we can't make visits."

"You will stay with us some days?" said Laurence.

"Impossible," he replied. "If we were not so separated by events (for as to distance, you go farther than that which lies between us) you would know, my dear child, that I have daughters, daughters-in-law, and grand-children. All these dear creatures would be very uneasy if I did not return to them to-night, and I have forty-five miles to go."

"Your horses are in good condition," said the Marquis de Simeuse.

"Oh! I am just from Troyes, where I had business yesterday."

After the customary polite inquiries for the Marquise de Chargeboeuf and other matters really uninteresting but about which politeness assumes that we are keenly interested, it dawned on Monsieur d'Hauteserre that the old gentleman had come to warn his young relatives against imprudence. He remarked that times were changed and no one could tell what the Emperor might now become.

"Oh!" said Laurence, "he'll make himself God."

The Marquis spoke of the wisdom of concession. When he stated, with more emphasis and authority than he put into his other remarks, the necessity of submission, Monsieur d'Hauteserre looked at his sons with an almost supplicating air.

"Would you serve that man?" asked the Marquis de Simeuse.

"Yes, I would, if the interests of my family required it," replied Monsieur de Chargeboeuf.

Gradually the old man made them aware, though vaguely, of some threatened danger. When Laurence begged him to explain the nature of it, he advised the four young men to refrain from hunting and to keep themselves as much in retirement as possible.

"You treat the domain of Gondreville as if it were your own," he said to the Messieurs de Simeuse, "and you are keeping alive a deadly hatred. I see, by the surprise upon your faces, that you are quite unaware of the ill-will against you at Troyes, where your late brave conduct is remembered. They tell of how you foiled the police of the Empire; some praise you for it, but others regard you as enemies of the Emperor; partisans declare that Napoleon's clemency is inexplicable. That, however, is nothing. The real danger lies here; you foiled men who thought themselves cleverer than you; and low-bred men never forgive. Sooner or later justice, which in your department emanates from your enemy, Senator Malin (who has his henchmen everywhere, even in the ministerial offices),--_his justice will rejoice to see you involved in some annoying scrape. A peasant, for instance, will quarrel with you for riding over his field; your guns are in your hands, you are hot-tempered, and something happens. In your position it is absolutely essential that you should not put yourselves in the wrong. I do not speak to you thus without good reason. The police keep this arrondissement under strict surveillance; they have an agent in that little hole of Arcis expressly to protect the Imperial senator Malin against your attacks. He is afraid of you, and says so openly."

"It is a calumny!" cried the younger Simeuse.

"A calumny,--I am sure of it myself, but will the public believe it? Michu certainly did aim at the senator, who does not forget the danger he was in; and since your return the countess has taken Michu into her service. To many persons, in fact to the majority, Malin will seem to be in the right. You do not understand how delicate the position of an _emigre is towards those who are now in possession of his property. The prefect, a very intelligent man, dropped a word to me yesterday about you which has made me uneasy. In short, I sincerely wish you would not remain here."

This speech was received in dumb amazement. Marie-Paul rang the bell.

"Gothard," he said, to the little page, "send Michu here."

"Michu, my friend," said the Marquis de Simeuse when the man appeared, "is it true that you intended to kill Malin?"

"Yes, Monsieur le marquis; and when he comes here again I shall lie in wait for him."

"Do you know that we are suspected of instigating it, and that our cousin, by taking you as her farmer is supposed to be furthering your scheme?"

"Good God!" cried Michu, "am I accursed? Shall I never be able to rid you of that villain?"

"No, my man, no!" said Paul-Marie. "But we will always take care of you, though you will have to leave our service and the country too. Sell your property here; we will send you to Trieste to a friend of ours who has immense business connections, and he'll employ you until things are better in this country for all of us."

Tears came into Michu's eyes; he stood rooted to the floor.

"Were there any witnesses when you aimed at Malin?" asked the Marquis de Chargeboeuf.

"Grevin the notary was talking with him, and that prevented my killing him--very fortunately, as Madame la Comtesse knows," said Michu, looking at his mistress.

"Grevin is not the only one who knows it?" said Monsieur de Chargeboeuf, who seemed annoyed at what was said, though none but the family were present.

"That police spy who came here to trap my masters, he knew it too," said Michu.

Monsieur de Chargeboeuf rose as if to look at the gardens, and said, "You have made the most of Cinq-Cygne." Then he left the house, followed by the two brothers and Laurence, who now saw the meaning of his visit.

"You are frank and generous, but most imprudent," said the old man. "It was natural enough that I should warn you of a rumor which was certain to be a slander; but what have you done now? you have let such weak persons as Monsieur and Madame d'Hauteserre and their sons see that there was truth in it. Oh, young men! young men! You ought to keep Michu here and go away yourselves. But if you persist in remaining, at least write a letter to the senator and tell him that having heard the rumors about Michu you have dismissed him from your employ."

"We!" exclaimed the brothers; "what, write to Malin,--to the murderer of our father and our mother, to the insolent plunderer of our property!"

"All true; but he is one of the chief personages at the Imperial court, and the king of your department."

"He, who voted for the death of Louis XVI. in case the army of Conde entered France!" cried Laurence.

"He, who probably advised the murder of the Duc d'Enghien!" exclaimed Paul-Marie.

"Well, well, if you want to recapitulate his titles of nobility," cried Monsieur de Chargeboeuf, "say he who pulled Robespierre by the skirts of his coat to make him fall when he saw that his enemies were stronger than he; he who would have shot Bonaparte if the 18th Brumaire had missed fire; he who manoeuvres now to bring back the Bourbons if Napoleon totters; he whom the strong will ever find on their side to handle either sword or pistol and put an end to an adversary whom they fear! But--all that is only reason the more for what I urge upon you."

"We have fallen very low," said Laurence.

"Children," said the old marquis, taking them by the hand and going to the lawn, then covered by a slight fall of snow; "you will be angry at the prudent advice of an old man, but I am bound to give it, and here it is: If I were you I would employ as go-between some trustworthy old fellow--like myself, for instance; I would commission him to ask Malin for a million of francs for the title-deeds of Gondreville; he would gladly consent if the matter were kept secret. You will then have capital in hand, an income of a hundred thousand francs, and you can buy a fine estate in another part of France. As for Cinq-Cygne, it can safely be left to the management of Monsieur d'Hauteserre, and you can draw lots as to which of you shall win the hand of this dear heiress --But ah! I know the words of an old man in the ears of the young are like the words of the young in the ears of the old, a sound without meaning."

The old marquis signed to his three relatives that he wished no answer, and returned to the salon, where, during their absence, the abbe and his sister had arrived.

The proposal to draw lots for their cousin's hand had offended the brothers, while Laurence revolted in her soul at the bitterness of the remedy the old marquis counselled. All three were now less gracious to him, though they did not cease to be polite. The warmth of their feeling was chilled. Monsieur de Chargeboeuf, who felt the change, cast frequent looks of kindly compassion on these charming young people. The conversation became general, but the old marquis still dwelt on the necessity of submitting to events, and he applauded Monsieur d'Hauteserre for his persistence in urging his sons to take service under the Empire.

"Bonaparte," he said, "makes dukes. He has created Imperial fiefs, he will therefore make counts. Malin is determined to be Comte de Gondreville. That is a fancy," he added, looking at the Simeuse brothers, "which might be profitable to you--"

"Or fatal," said Laurence.

As soon as the horses were put-to the marquis took leave, accompanied to the door by the whole party. When fairly in the carriage he made a sign to Laurence to come and speak to him, and she sprang upon the foot-board with the lightness of a swallow.

"You are not an ordinary woman, and you ought to understand me," he said in her ear. "Malin's conscience will never allow him to leave you in peace; he will set some trap to injure you. I implore you to be careful of all your actions, even the most unimportant. Compromise, negotiate; those are my last words."

The brothers stood motionless behind their cousin and watched the _berlingot as it turned through the iron gates and took the road to Troyes. Laurence repeated the old man's last words. But sage experience should not present itself to the eyes of youth in a _berlingot_, colored stockings, and a queue. These ardent young hearts had no conception of the change that had passed over France; indignation crisped their nerves, honor boiled with their noble blood through every vein.

"He, the head of the house of Chargeboeuf!" said the Marquis de Simeuse. "A man who bears the motto _Adsit fortior_, the noblest of warcries!"

"We are no longer in the days of Saint-Louis," said the younger Simeuse.

"But 'We die singing,'" said the countess. "The cry of the five young girls of my house is mine!"

"And ours, 'Cy meurs,'" said the elder Simeuse. "Therefore, no quarter, I say; for, on reflection, we shall find that our relative had pondered well what he told us--Gondreville to be the title of a Malin!"

"And his seat!" said the younger.

"Mansart designed it for noble stock, and the populace will get their children in it!" exclaimed the elder.

"If that were to come to pass, I'd rather see Gondreville in ashes!" cried Mademoiselle Cinq-Cygne.

One of the villagers, who had entered the grounds to examine a calf Monsieur d'Hauteserre was trying to sell him, overheard these words as he came from the cow-sheds.

"Let us go in," said Laurence, laughing; "this is very imprudent; we are giving the old marquis a right to blame us. My poor Michu," she added, as she entered the salon, "I had forgotten your adventure; as we are not in the odor of sanctity in these parts you must be careful not to compromise us in future. Have you any other peccadilloes on your conscience?"

"I blame myself for not having killed the murderer of my old masters before I came to the rescue of my present ones--"

"Michu!" said the abbe in a warning tone.

"But I'll not leave the country," Michu continued, paying no heed to the abbe's exclamation, "till I am certain you are safe. I see fellows roaming about here whom I distrust. The last time we hunted in the forest, that keeper who took my place at Gondreville came to me and asked if we supposed we were on our own property. 'Ho! my lad,' I said, 'we can't get rid in two weeks of ideas we've had for centuries.'"

"You did wrong, Michu," said the Marquis de Simeuse, smiling with satisfaction.

"What answer did he make?" asked Monsieur d'Hauteserre.

"He said he would inform the senator of our claims," replied Michu.

"Comte de Gondreville!" repeated the elder Simeuse; "what a masquerade! But after all, they say 'your Majesty' to Bonaparte!"

"And to the Grand Duc de Berg, 'your Highness!'" said the abbe.

"Who is he?" asked the Marquis de Simeuse.

"Murat, Napoleon's brother-in-law," replied old d'Hauteserre.

"Delightful!" remarked Mademoiselle de Cinq-Cygne. "Do they also say 'your Majesty' to the widow of Beauharnais?"

"Yes, mademoiselle," said the abbe.

"We ought to go to Paris and see it all," cried Laurence.

"Alas, mademoiselle," said Michu, "I was there to put Francois at school, and I swear to you there's no joking with what they call the Imperial Guard. If the rest of the army are like them, the thing may last longer than we."

"They say many of the noble families are taking service," said Monsieur d'Hauteserre.

"According to the present law," added the abbe, "you will be compelled to serve. The conscription makes no distinction of ranks or names."

"That man is doing us more harm with his court than the Revolution did with its axe!" cried Laurence.

"The Church prays for him," said the abbe.

These remarks, made rapidly one after another, were so many commentaries on the wise counsel of the old Marquis de Chargeboeuf; but the young people had too much faith, too much honor, to dream of resorting to a compromise. They told themselves, as all vanquished parties in all times have declared, that the luck of the conquerors would soon be at an end, that the Emperor had no support but that of the army, that the power _de facto must sooner or later give way to the Divine Right, etc. So, in spite of the wise counsel given to them, they fell into the pitfall, which others, like old d'Hauteserre, more prudent and more amenable to reason, would have been able to avoid. If men were frank they might perhaps admit that misfortunes never overtake them until after they have received either an actual or an occult warning. Many do not perceive the deep meaning of such visible or invisible signs until after the disaster is upon them.

"In any case, Madame la comtesse knows that I cannot leave the country until I have given up a certain trust," said Michu in a low voice to Mademoiselle de Cinq-Cygne.

For all answer she made him a sign of acquiescence, and he left the room.

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