19th Century

The Baroness: A Novel (Part I) | G.W.M. Reynolds

By George W.M. Reynolds

Chapter One: The Calais Mail

It was in the middle of August, 1822, that the epoch of our tale commences.[1] The clock of the General Post Office in Paris had struck the hour of five in the afternoon, and the passengers, who had secured places in the various mails for their different destinations, began to arrive. Hackney coaches, cabriolets, private carriages, and gigs, thronged opposite the gate of the extensive building, and encumbered the narrow street which has been dignified with the illustrious name of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The porters and numerous dependants on all public institutions were most assiduous in aiding, or rather embarrassing, the individuals who issued from their respective vehicles, with importunate assistance: and the often repeated cries of “Which mail does Monsieur go by—Brest—Havre—Strasbourg—Calais—Lyon—Mezieres?” &c., were strongly mingled with the oaths of postilions, the shouts of hostlers, the authoritative commands of the government couriers or guards, and the harsh voices of the sentries patrolling in front of the portals of the post office.

The mails were drawn up in a long line across the wide court which is known as the Cour d’Horloge; and many an anxious eye was turned towards the large clock that stands upon the building at the extremity of the yard. It was Sunday afternoon, and the moment of departure on the Sabbath is fixed at half-past five instead of six, which is the ordinary hour during the week. The horses were already harnessed to the massive vehicles, the postilions stepped into their ponderous boots, and the passengers were requested to take their seats.

A variety of questions and petulent replies now ensued.

“Is my baggage safely stowed away, porter?” enquired a fat English gentleman in bad French.

“Certainly, my lord,” was the reply; “do you think the people who attend upon the Lyons mail are robbers?”

“And my umbrella!” screamed an old lady, as she endeavoured to ascend the steps of the Orleans coach without assistance.

“Right as the flask of cognac I stowed away for you, madam, in the left hand pocket,” returned an insolent fellow in a smock-frock.

“Which is the Caen mail?” demanded an Italian refugee, taking the remnant of a cigar from his mouth, and throwing it upon the list shoe of a gouty Scotchman who was employed in paying the porter for having taken care of his trunk, which contained two shirts and a pocket handkerchief.

“Cannot you use your eyes and read the names on the panels?”

“How ignorant some people are!” said a little English boy of thirteen to his mother.—“Thank God! I have received a good education, and should know where to look for C, A, E, N,” added the urchin, as he spelt the word with a triumphant glance towards his parent.

“Send for a gendarme to take up that gentleman in the handsome coat and new hat, who is fumbling in this old lady’s pockets,” roared a postilion, as he pointed to an individual literally clothed in rags.

“The governor ought to complain to Monseigneur, the minister of the interior,” observed another beggar, scarcely better clad than the one to whom his allusion was directed.

At length the bustle ceased, the busy hum of voices dwindled into comparative silence, and the passengers were quietly ensconced in their respective places. The postilions were seated like statues upon their horses, waiting the signal for departure, and fixing their impatient glances upon the clock at the bottom of the court. No sooner had the first stroke of the chimes announced the half-hour, than the mail which stood first in the rank, and which as long as we can remember has always been that of Mezieres, started from its station, and dashed out of the gates with the speed of lightning. The others followed with the same rapidity, and in five minutes not even the noise of their wheels met the ears of the loiterers in the Cour d’Horloge or the Rue Jean Jacques Rousseau.

The Calais mail was the fifth that issued from the post-office. The postilions cracked their whips as the four strong Normandy horses that were harnessed to the vehicle launched forth at full speed, and the equipage threaded the narrow streets with an astonishing velocity, despite of the crowds of carriages, coaches, waggons, carts, and cabriolets, which often threatened to bar its progress. At ten minutes past six the horses were changed at St. Denis, a distance of six miles from the post-office of Paris.

But the reader must not imagine that the remainder of the long journey of seventy leagues was to he performed at the same rapid rate. The first stage is called a Royal Post, and the postilions deem it their duty to accomplish it in as short a time as possible. When once St. Denis is passed, the mail relapses into the sober pace of about eight miles an hour. The mail is separated into two divisions. The front department is occupied by the guard or courier and one passenger; and the body of the coach, or the interior, contained in 1822 three persons; this number is now reduced to two.

On the present occasion the interior was occupied by three gentlemen, who observed for a long time a reserve and taciturnity with regard to each other that showed the pre-occupation of their minds. One was an old man of seventy. His few thin locks were as white as snow—his forehead was covered with a thousand wrinkles—his mouth was drawn in—his cheeks sunken—his small dark eyes hollow and death-like. Still the ravaging hand of time had not robbed his countenance of a certain stern expression, nor his aspect of a noble and aristocratic air, that denoted the individual once habituated to command and to be obeyed. He was dressed in deep black—his clothes were cut in a peculiarly old fashion long ago exploded—and the ponderous cloak, with which he was more encumbered than rendered comfortable, was lined with costly sables. A massive gold chain hung from his watch-pocket, and he occasionally regaled himself with a pinch of snuff from a box made of the same metal. But his hand was trembling, and his head shook with the feebleness of overburthening years. Still his countenance betokened that the energies of his mind had not failed in sympathy with those of his frame, the physical force of that old man did not involve the moral powers in their decay, nor did his memory cease to recall in glowing colours the deeds of his youthful day. The actions of his past years seemed to him but as the events of a few by-gone summers at a little distance.

This venerable personage had taken his place in the mail under the name of the Chevalier d’Altamont, a title, the cross of St. Louis, which he wore at his button-hole, seemed to corroborate.

The individual who occupied the second place in the Calais mail was a man who had probably seen fifty summers. His cheeks were florid, his hair still dark, his teeth well preserved, and his large black eye seemed capable of piercing to the very soul, and of scanning the secret thoughts of the most wary and the most skilful in concealing their intentions beneath a mask of hypocrisy. A certain satirical smile played around his lip and gave to his countenance an air of conscious importance and sovereign contempt for his inferiors, which failed to impress a new acquaintance or a stranger in his favour. He was dressed in the extreme of fashion, his clothes were evidently fabricated by the first Parisian tailors, and his eye occasionally glanced with a look of complaisance and satisfaction on the red hand of the legion of honour which he wore.

His name was entered upon the courier’s way-bill as M. de Moirot, Notary Public of the Rue Vivienne, Paris.

The third seat of the interior was filled by a gentleman of about thirty. His features were regular and striking, the facial line was aquiline, the eye dark and fiery, the hair black and slightly curled. But his countenance bore evident marks of the inroads that dissipation and irregularity of life had made upon his constitution. His clothes were somewhat shabby, he possessed no cloak nor great-coat to envelope himself withal, and every now and then he pulled down his sleeves to conceal the holes that appeared in his dirty kid gloves. His double-breasted waistcoat was carefully buttoned up to the throat, and did not permit the smallest particle of linen to show itself about his person. His manners were free and easy, his impudence in addressing the most perfect stranger was unparalleled, and his good opinion of himself was only equalled by the bad one that others entertained of him.

This individual, whose name was Sans-géne—and a very appropriate name it will eventually prove to be—had booked himself for Boulogne-sur-Mer, whither he was going to receive a considerable property left him by his father, who had just died in that town through a surfeit and consequent apoplexy occasioned by the deceased gentleman’s unconquerable predilection for fried eels.

It was not till the mail had arrived as far as Chantilly that either of these three passengers ventured to break the silence they had so rigidly maintained. At length M. de Moirot was wearied of that selfish taciturnity, and resolved to interrupt it. He turned for a moment towards the window on his side, looked in the direction in which the palace was situated, and pointing it out to his aged companion said, “The king is at this moment in yonder dwelling.”

“I know it,” returned the chevalier, “and let us thank a bountiful Providence for having restored an ancient dynasty to its rights, and established the former glories of France on a firmer basis than ever!”

“You were then no friend to the emperor?” observed the notary.

“An honest man is never a friend to tyrants,” was the laconic answer.

“Quite right, old fellow,” said Sans-géne, accompanying his approval with a familiar slap on the chevalier’s knee.

“And yet, messieurs,” persisted M. de Moirot, with a peculiar suavity of voice and manner, “and yet Napoleon has done more for France than ever was performed by the Bourbon family.”

“He rendered her the most miserable country in the world—he covered her plains with slaughtered heroes.”

“Sacrebleu” cried Sans-géne, totally unawed by the indignant glances of d’Altamont, “the old fellow does not preach badly.”

“Still the fame of Napoleon’s victories is undying on the page of history,” said de Moirot, casting a look of contempt at Sans-géne, who ran his fingers through his hair with the most ineffable nonchalance.

“Glory is an empty bubble, and peace conduces to the welfare of illustrious men. But let us change the conversation,” continued M. d’Altamont; “and, in order to vary the topic, ere we dispute, allow me to ask whether you propose going as far as Calais?”

“Ah! that’s it,” cried Sans géne, helping himself to a copious pinch of the chevalier’s snuff. “Good dust this, old boy—bought at the Ciret, of course—eh ?”

“I intend to stop at Amiens,” said de Moirot.

“And I also,” observed the chevalier.

“Tis a disagreeable hour to arrive at an hotel—three o’clock in the morning,” observed Sans-géne; “deuced tired, and obliged to shift for one’s-self. No gentleman can stand it, ou le diable m’em- porte.”

“Had not pressing business compelled me to visit the neighbourhood of Amiens,” began M. de Moirot, without noticing Sans-géne’s observations, “I should not—”

“Ah! it is not in the town, then,” exclaimed the old man quickly, “that the mail will put you down?”

“Mon pardon—I must endeavour to snatch a few hours of repose at Amiens, and then a hired carriage will speedily convey me to the chateau.”

“A chateau near Amiens, in Picardy !” said the chevalier hastily.

“I am about to visit the Baroness of Grandmanoir,” observed the notary.

“Devilish high connexion that,” exclaimed Sans-géne.

“Within a mile of Amiens,” continued de Moirot, “the two very first objects that meet the eye are the tall spire of the cathedral, and the distant turrets of the ancient chateau.”

“I have remarked them in former times,” said the old man. “The manor-house is surrounded by groves of lofty trees; but the turreted walls peep over that verdant enclosure. There is not a finer estate in all Picardy than that of Grandmanoir. Perhaps you have seen it yourself?”

“If my memory do not fail me,” returned the chevalier slowly, “I think I have once or twice been an inmate of the noble mansion. But for many years I have not visited this part of the country. Of course the baroness is still alive?”

“And in good health,” said de Moirot. ‘“The excellent lady! she has seen many a change of season, many a political vicissitude ! At this moment she cannot be less than sixty-five or sixty-six years of age. I have had the honour of transacting business for her during a quarter of a century, and my father—”

At this moment the wheels of the mail rattled on the pavement of the town of Clermont, and the conversation was dropped by the passengers in the interior. The chevalier d’Altamont did not exhibit any wish to renew it, Sans-géne was fast asleep, and de Moirot became thoughtful. The night was dark, but not a breath of wind disturbed the tranquil leaf: the soft breeze of the morning had entirely subsided to a dead calm. The noise of the horses’ hoofs, and the cracking of the postilion’s whip, now alone interrupted the solemn silence, and the heavy vehicle rolled onward at an even and unwearied pace. Occasionally it made way to allow a diligence or a waggon to pass by, and then with the right wheels in the dusty road, and the left on the pavement, its deviation from the perpendicular appeared to threaten an overthrow. But in a moment it regained the middle of the wide route, and relaxed not an iota of its steady pace.

The clock of the town-hall had struck half-past three in the morning, when the mail entered Amiens at full gallop. The postilion urged on his four obedient horses with whip and spur, and the courier blew a loud blast upon his bugle to give due warning to the clerk at the post-office. In a minute the coach stopped at the door, and a hostler, who was employed in changing the horses, volunteered his services to convey the baggage of the two gentlemen, whose journey was completed, to the inn where they chose to put up.

The morning was cold and gloomy. A mizzling rain descended like a fog, and beat in the faces of the shivering travellers. In vain the chevalier drew his cloak more closely around him, he could not repel the frigid sensation that numbed him. M. de Moirot’s teeth chattered as he walked up and down immediately opposite the post-office, while Sans-géne thrust his hands into the great-coat pocket of the courier to warm them. But the horses were soon harnessed to the mail—Sans-géne resumed his seat in the interior, the postilion mounted into his saddle, and the equipage again set forth upon its journey, carrying with it an individual who will soon become no unimportant nor unamusing character in the progress of this tale. The reader may readily guess that we allude to Sans-géne.

The hostler was now ready to perform his promise; and the two travellers followed him to the Hotel de France. By dint of ringing at the gate, the porter was as length induced to obey the summons, and admit the chevalier and the notary within the precincts of the hotel. A chamber-maid was obliged to leave her warm couch and prepare beds for the early visitors, which she did with an internal dissatisfaction that her countenance dared not betray.

“You will call me at eight o’clock,” said M. de Moirot to the girl.

“And you will suffer me to sleep as long as I choose,” observed the chevalier. A reply in the affirmative was given to each of these injunctions, and every one retired to his respective chamber.

Chapter Two: The Breakfast Table

About four miles from Amiens, in the most fertile part of Picardy, stood the vast dwelling of the Baroness of Grandmanoir, The old house, which had existed for ages, displayed a variety of species of architecture. On one side were Gothic towers, with frowning parapet and long windows arched at the top; on the other were colonnades supported by massive pillars in the Corinthian fashion. The Doric and Ionic were not less visible amongst that motley pile of buildings, which on the whole was vested with a certain air of sombre magnificence and gloomy grandeur that inspired awe and veneration rather than any other more pleasurable feelings.

The chateau consisted of a large edifice, three stories high, with antique gables and massive chimneys that seemed incapable of resisting the violence of a storm. But there they had stood for three centuries, and the lapse of years had scarcely proved more ravaging than the efforts of the gale. The old chateau—it appeared to belong not to time, but to eternity! On each side of the main building, retreating some paces from a level with the front of it, and connected to it by the above-mentioned Corinthian colonnades, projected the two wings in rigid uniformity with each other. At the extremity of the wings were the Gothic towers, and in their immediate neighbourhood an ignorant architect from Amiens had lately built a variety of out-houses in numerous modern forms and fashions. But on the central edifice was the grand Gothic tower. Figures representing ancient warriors occupied niches between every high- arched window of the whole fabric; the wood-work of the gables was fantastically carved; the very belfry, in which hung the sonorous instrument that periodically called the inmates to the dining-halls, partook of that venerable antiquity. At equal distances along the roof of the building were placed tall rods of iron as conductors to the lightning. On one of these rods floated the banner of France—the insignia of the re-establishment of the Bourbon dynasty.

The principal entrance, which was situated in the centre of the main building, was approached by a flight of five or six steps, beneath a portico supported by two pillars. This was also an improvement of the last century. The gate itself was composed of folding doors, well studded with large nails, and as well secured inside by bolts and bars. They were only opened on grand occasions; a small wicket served as a means of egress and ingress for ordinary purposes.

The inside of the venerable manor-house was as varied and diversified in its arrangements as the exterior. Some of the apartments were furnished in the fashion that was prevalent during the glorious sway of Louis the Fourteenth; and others were occupied by chairs, tables, and carpets, manufactured in the reign of the good King Louis the Sixteenth, or during the times of the Republic. The causes of this extraordinary variety may probably be accounted for hereafter.

The gardens and surrounding parks were laid out and arranged in the most tasteful manner. Cascades, Chinese bridges, fountains, arbours of twining jasmine, labyrinths of clematis and grape-vines, fish-ponds teeming with carp and tench, bowers of roses, rich fruit trees, gaudy flowers, hot-houses, and summer-houses, were seen in all directions. Never was there a more enchanting spot. The gardens were enclosed by high railings kept in excellent order, and beyond them were the parks in which the sportive deer fed tranquilly and unmolested.

The baroness herself was an old lady who had entered her sixty sixth year when the epoch of this tale commences. Forty-eight summers had scattered flowers over her extensive domains, and forty-eight winters had cast their snows upon the old castle, since she was first led a blooming bride to those ancient halls. The lord of Grandmanoir had encountered her in the gay saloons of the Faubourg St. Germain, in Paris, and selected her from the fair daughters of the noblesse of France as the partner of his fortunes. The baroness was wooed and won; her parents, who were not wealthy, although of an ancient family,—being descended from the venerable constable Montmorenci, who fought and died at St. Quintin in 1557,—were too much delighted at the proposal of the illustrious baron to raise the slightest scruple; and the wedding was celebrated with all the pomp and splendour that individuals of their rank might have been expected to display. With an immense fortune, a magnificent estate, a handsome person, and engaging manners, the baron of Grandmanoir was well suited to render his spouse the happiest of women. They dwelt at the chateau near Amiens in the summer, and in the winter they sought the pleasures so abundantly found in the sovereign city of the world. Their union was blessed by the birth of a son in the year 1775; and soon after this event, to the astonishment of their friends and relations, the baron and baroness of Grandmanoir sold their princely hotel in the Faubourg St. Germain, dismissed their servants, disposed of their furniture, and departed on a tour to Italy.

M. de Moirot, a notary in the Rue Vivienne, was nominated their agent to superintend their pecuniary affairs in Paris, to visit the chateau at Amiens from time to time, and to transact all business that the baron might have with the French metropolis. For some time the chateau was shut up, as the return of the proprietors was expected to take place in the course of a year or two. But they did not make their appearance; and M. de Moirot at length advertised the ancient manor-house to be let.

It was not till the year 1790 that the banker’s lease was concluded. The baroness Grandmanoir then returned to France, accompanied by her son, but unattended by her lord. They were dressed in deep mourning—the one for a husband, the other for a father. M. de Moirot attended them to their ancestral halls, and gave up the keys to the widow. But she did not long inhabit the spacious manor house in peace. The revolution broke out, and she was obliged to leave her native land. This time she sought the hospitable shores of England, where she remained until the re-establishment of the Bourbons allowed her to return to France and take undisputed possession of her property. Her son had married the daughter of a French emigrant who had also been obliged to take refuge in England; and two daughters were the fruit of that union. The little girls were named Eugenie and Clemence; and both gave promise of being one day remarkable for an extraordinary degree of beauty. The anticipations of their parents were not disappointed; but they did not live to witness the fulfilment of their prophetic wishes. An epidemic malady carried them to the tomb; and at the respective ages of eleven and nine, when the baroness returned to France, the interesting orphans were dependent on their venerable grandmother alone, whose years had multiplied, whose brow was wrinkled with cares, and whose path through life had not been strewed with an unusual profusion of flowers. Alas! many thorns had embittered her existence!

When the baroness returned to France in 1815, M. de Moirot’s son had succeeded to his father’s business, and to the agency of the financial arrangements of Grandmanvir. He is the same individual whom we have already introduced to our readers, and whom we have seen travelling in the Calais mail from Paris to Amiens. His father, at his decease, had left him an immense fortune in addition to his etude de notaire; and there were not found wanting certain scandalous tongues who declared that the greater portion of this wealth was extracted from the productive lands of Grandmanoir. Be that as it may, the baroness did not dispute the accuracy of the notary’s accounts, and M. de Moirot was an occasional—we know not whether a welcome—guest at the chateau.

It is, then, in the year 1822 that we have commenced our tale. The baroness was seated with her grand-daughters and two gentlemen at the breakfast table, and an unusual silence reigned on all sides. The old lady was oppressed in spirits, a nervous anxiety made her start at every step she heard in the corridor, or at every time the door of the oaken parlour was opened. Her countenance was paler than ordinarily, and ever and anon she cast glances of commiseration or sorrow on Eugenie and Clemence.

Eugenie was now eighteen years of age. She was tall and exquisitely formed; her dark eyes were replete with fire, they were the mirror of the purest of souls to reflect the chastest of thoughts. Her guileless bosom was unacquainted with the name of sin. She was one of those ravishing creatures that seem unfit to breathe the tainted air of this earth, and that are alone adapted to dwell in regions where care, vice, and infamy are not known. Her luxuriant hair fell in long ringlets over a neck of snow: her high-arched brow set off a forehead that spoke of virgin candour and innocence. Her complexion was somewhat inclined to the clear olive—a brunette, where the vermilion was scarcely distinguished, save on her lips, which were red and pouting. Her ivory teeth were small and even, her nose was perfectly straight, her eyes were shaded by long dark lashes, which seemed to indicate that Spanish blood rolled in her veins;—but it was not so. Nor were her passions like those of the ultra-Pyrenean maidens. Her heart was as incapable of a sentiment of revenge as her virgin pride was impossible to be beguiled by the seducer. The amiability and generosity of her disposition were as unquestionable as her beauty and accomplishments.

Clementine or Clemence was two years younger than her sister; and although her charms were in nothing inferior to those of Eugenie, they were entirely of a different stamp and cast of beauty. Her blue eyes beamed with mildness and bewitching softness, her flaxen hair was parted above a brow that might have shamed the whitest alabaster, and her delicate complexion was slightly tinged with the purple hue of health and youthful freshness. Her airy form was chiselled in most exquisite and enchanting proportions, her tread was elastic, her walk upright as the young tree, and her delicate foot scarcely seemed to touch the ground she trod upon. Her manners were full of playfulness and girlish sportiveness, while her sister’s were somewhat quiet and reserved. Eugenie was a domesticated being—Clemence was like the winged butterfly of opening summer.

Between these two fascinating creatures was seated a young man of about six or seven and twenty years of age. He was of noble bearing, somewhat haughty in his manners, and very proud of his fortune and title. He had been left an orphan at an early age, and the care of aristocratic guardians increased his revenues to a considerate extent. His estate joined the vast lands of Grandmanoir, and, notwithstanding the haughtiness of his notions, be was well beloved by his tenantry and dependants. He was still single; and, being a constant visitor at the chateau of the baroness, it was generally supposed in the neighbourhood that Eugenie or Clemence would one day become countess of Montville. As yet he had shown no marked preference for either; he was attached to them both, was enamoured of their beauty, was captivated by their amiability, accomplishments, and virtue; and although he secretly determined to fulfil the predictions of his acquaintances, he was still undecided which to choose.

With regard to Eugenie and Clementine themselves, each thought that the attentions of the count were paid chiefly to her sister; and of the two, perhaps, Clemence was the one who entertained for the aristocratic scion of the noble house the more deeply rooted germinations of affection.

The other gentleman, who occupied a seat at the breakfast table of the baroness of Grandmanoir, was the Abbé Prud’homme. Father Joseph, as he was familiarly called by the family, was a man of about five-and-thirty. He was amongst that class of individuals whose characters are delineated by their actions and not by their appearance or words. Like the generality of priests he was a hypocrite and a gourmand, full of jesuitical sayings, holy remonstrances, saintly allusions, and divine breathings. He had many bad and many good points about him. He was cunning, clever, artful, and designing; on the other hand, he was generous, charitable, and even profuse in his liberality. He had been installed in his present position in the family since the return of the baroness to France. In person Father Joseph was tall, spare, and thin; his eyes were dark and sunken, his complexion sallow, and his cheeks hollow. He was a man of few words, generally wrapt in deep meditation, and capable of concealing his sentiments and acutest feelings from the most penetrating and experienced. Such we believe is the character of Roman Catholic priests, a character formed by a mystified system of religion; but let not the reader suppose that we aim a blow at that religion through the medium of an attack upon its ministers. The flock may be sound and pure—the shepherd may be false and designing.

The count de Montville; the priest, and the two sisters, all noticed the down-cast air of the venerable baroness, and longed to question her as to the cause. But that lady had inculcated such sentiments of deference and respect into the minds of her grand-daughters, and inspired the same awe in the hearts of the others, that no one ventured to hint at the melancholy which oppressed her, nor uttered a word that might bear the slightest allusion to the subject. The baroness of Grandmanoir maintained a certain feudal authority in her own house; and any visitors, who from time to time partook of her hospitality, soon became accustomed to the stately manners of the ancient dame, and paid strict observance to those laws that regulated the rest of the family. No general ever possessed a greater command over his regiment—no monarch ever reigned more absolutely over his people than did the baroness in the ancestral halls of her departed husband. Still was her sway lenient and mild; no one felt the chains her authority had cast around her dependants,—all fancied they obeyed from motives of respect and deference.

The restraint already mentioned was peculiarly irksome to the two sisters. They loved and-revered their grandmother, and were naturally anxious concerning the cause of her melancholy demeanour. They knew that M. de Moirot was expected, but they could not connect his anticipated arrival with the springs of the baroness’ sorrow. We must, however, leave them and our readers in a state of uncertainty for the present, and procrastinate any development of the mystery to the next chapter.

To be continued

[1] Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Baroness: A Novel’, The Monthly Magazine, August 1837, pp. 165–75.

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