19th Century

The Baroness: A Novel (Part III)

Read parts one and two of this fascinating tale by George W M Reynolds, originally written in 1837.

Chapter Five: A Disclosure

When Sans-géne awoke in the morning, he rubbed his eyes, and strove to collect his scattered ideas so as to call to mind the events of the preceding evening.[1] He laughed heartily when, in the midst of many confused reminiscences, his memory furnished him with the fact of his having despatched M. Delville to Calais by the night diligence; and when the waiter entered his apartment, an unconquerable and continued risibility for some time prevented him from answering the enquiries of that individual concerning the old gentleman.

“He has taken a singular freak into his head, and performed it,” said Sans-géne, amidst peals of laughter.

“Ah!” ejaculated the waiter; “and pray what might the freak be, Monsieur?” he added in a respectful tone.

“To get drunk, and go to Calais to drink soda-water,” was the reply.

The waiter opened his eyes in unfeigned astonishment, and shrugged his shoulders doubtfully, as he muttered a “Je n’y comprends rien.”

“Despatch, waiter, and prepare my breakfast,” cried Sans-géne, when the immoderate ebullition of his mirth had somewhat abated; “for I have important business to transact with M. Deleux, the solicitor, who, by the way, invited me to breakfast with him: but I dare not venture out with an empty stomach; so use despatch—and, waiter—”

“What is your pleasure, Monsieur?” said the garçon.

“Have the goodness to enquire at the office down stairs, if two or three trunks and half a dozen carpet bags arrived from Paris by the waggon this morning, addressed ‘A sa seigneurie—’ no, I mean to ‘M. Sans-géne, voyageur, Boulogne-sur-Mer.’ ”

“Certainly, Sir,” returned the waiter. “Is there any other commission to be executed for Monsieur?”’

“Yes—when I recollect myself—call at the banker’s in the Rue de l’Ecu, and enquire if a remittance have been received for me.”

The waiter bowed, and retired to perform those errands which Sans-géne knew perfectly well would lead to no result, for his whole wardrobe had accompanied him from Paris in a certain red cotton handkerchief before alluded to, and his present pecuniary possessions were limited to sevenpence halfpenny in sous on the mantel-piece.

“The waggon is not yet arrived, Monsieur,” said the waiter, when he re-entered the room, after the lapse of a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes; “and the banker has not yet received any advice from Paris relative to your remittances.”

“As for the money,” said Sans-géne very coolly, “I do not care about that; but my baggage—that is the essential point—for I travelled purposely in a very old suit, and am ashamed to appear before, my lawyer, from whom I am to receive a considerable sum of money, in such habiliments: not but that my coat is-cut in the first Parisian fashion”—(it had been purchased at an old clothes’ shop for the handsome sum of twelve francs)—“and my breeches” (which he had borrowed from a friend in 1821) “were new only three weeks ago.”

“If, Monsieur—’ began the waiter.

“Speak—do not be alarmed, my dear fellow,” said Sans-géne, affecting indifference as to the nature of the communication about to be made, although he full well divined the nature of it.

“I have a Sunday suit—” continued the timid garçon.

“And I have sixteen on the road,” observed Sans-géne.

“Which, if Monsieur would accept for a day,—” said the waiter.

“Three of mine are of superfine black cloth—” added Sans-géne.

“It is at Monsieur’s service,” achieved the attendant.

“With velvet collars—” remarked Sans-géne.

“No—it has no velvet about it,” interrupted the waiter, fancying that the gentleman of the extensive wardrobe was alluding to the coat he so liberally proffered.

“And I shall reward you with fifty francs,” cried Sans-géne, by way of cutting the matter short, to the great relief of the waiter, who was afraid he had not been fully understood.

The clothes were produced, and, considering that the waiter was but ten inches taller than Sans-géne, they did not fit badly. At all events they were better than the rejected articles; and when Sansgéne had completed his toilet, made a copious breakfast, and washed down the same with a bottle of St. Emilion, he hurried to the house in which M. Deleux resided. Having waited twenty minutes in the outer office, during which time a clerk was employed in informing M. Deleux of the client’s arrival, and a quarter of an hour, in the solicitor’s private cabinet, whither he was eventually shown, Sansgéne began to feel a certain uneasiness in thus being forced to tarry so unreasonable a time, and accordingly commenced the perusal of some of the lawyer’s private papers that lay scattered on the desk, to while away a few minutes—a task which he found somewhat difficult. But the obsequious bows, numerous welcomes, and cordial invitations liberally proffered by M. Deleux, when he entered the room, entirely effaced any disagreeable impression before received, A quarter of an hour was expended in a mutual exchange of compliments; and when all the politeness that the French language and French manners are capable of demonstrating had been effectually lavished on each other by those gentlemen, they proceeded to business, the lawyer opening the conversation in these terms:—

“The respected M. Sans-géne died very suddenly,” observed the solicitor.

“Through his predilection for fried eels, was it not?”

“Alas! poor man—it was,” returned the lawyer very seriously, “And his money-bags, M. Deleux—were they tolerably well lined?” enquired the anxious client.

“The late venerable M. Sans-géne, who for many years had carried on a certain commercial intercourse with our transmarine neighbours, the English,” began M. Deleux with peculiar solemnity—

“Smuggling, I suppose,” interrupted Sans-géne, as he laid his right foot on the corner of the solicitor’s desk, thereby interposing the well-polished boot, supplied by the waiter, between his own physiognomy and that of the lawyer; “smuggling, eh? was it not?”

“If we must descend to particular details,” observed M. Deleux, “it was by those daring transactions that the venerable M. Sans-géne amassed the sum of twenty-five thousand francs.”

“Twenty-five thousand francs!” shouted Sans-géne in raptures.

“Precisely,” answered the lawyer. “Which sum, in the plenitude of his kindness, he has left to you,” continued the man of business, “as well as divers barrels of spirituous liquors, some furniture, plate, linen, a waggon with three wheels, a lame horse, a mule, some oriental snakes preserved in spirits, and other valuables duly noticed in a catalogue of the effects.”

“Of which I stand much in need,” remarked the heir.

“What? of the waggon or the linen?” cried the lawyer in astonishment.

“Oh! no, thank God—but of the property,” said Sans-géne, correcting himself. “At this very moment I have no less than six dozens of fine linen shirts, with cambric bosoms—three dozens—”

Mille pardons!” exclaimed the lawyer; “but my time is precious, and I can readily take your word for the various articles that form your wardrobe. Should you intend to reside at Boulogne—”

“Decidedly not,” said Sans-géne, taking up the solicitor’s pen-knife to pair his nails.

“Then, in that case, perhaps the best step that could be taken, would be to realize the personal property, and convert the whole into ready money.”

“Monsieur,” replied Sans-géne, “you are a very Solomon—a Locman—an upright judge. Realize the property, and, in the meantime, give me a little cash for immediate purposes.”

“With pleasure,” answered M. Deleux. “But first, I must communicate a very important secret to you—a secret that has reposed in my breast for the last twenty years—a secret that the late venerated M. Sans-géne entrusted to my ears on his first arrival at Boulogne.”

Sacrebleu!” exclaimed Sans-géne; “here is a mystery! Pray, was the old gentleman a king in disguise, a prophet, or a necromancer?”

“Neither, my dear Sir; but he was not your father!”

“Not my father!” ejaculated Sans-géne; “I suppose, however, that his wife was my mother?”

“No—M. Sans-géne, you were no farther connected with the family of the late respected gentleman than by adoption. The name you at present bear, moreover, is neither your own, nor that of your putative father: circumstances, the nature of which he never explained even to me, induced him to assume that appellation, instead of his true one, which was Ménard—Paul Ménard.”

“Very likely,” remarked Sans-géne; “ but I shall retain my present nomenclature, which is not only more distingué than that of Ménard; but, by a strange coincidence, is exactly expressive of my true character; so that it would appear as if I were made for the name, instead of the name for me.”

“Very true,” said the lawyer, smiling at these observations, and glancing towards Sans-géne’s elevated leg, which had already caused several “dogs-ears” to curl the angles of certain parchments and deeds scattered over the desk to make a show, the said deeds having been totally useless for the last five years. “I have, however, done my duty,” continued the man of business, “in thus communicating a matter which I was only permitted to unfold after the demise of the respected M. Ménard, alias Sans-géne, It is now my intention to hand you over ten thousand francs for your immediate wants, and in the course of ten days the whole of your property shall be duly realized and paid to your account at any banking house you may name. I might, moreover, add, that only a few days before his sudden death, M. Menard expressed his hope to me that you would shortly discontinue your wild courses—pardon me, M. Sans-géne; it is my duty—and become as steady as he could wish you to be. Therefore, mon cher monsieur, reflect—”

“Beg pardon, my dear Sir, in return,” interrupted Sans-géne, “but my time is plaguy precious—three rendezvous, with as many noblemen staying here, already, and two conquests to attend to—might I therefore request—”

The lawyer understood Sans-géne’s meaning full well, and accordingly produced the promised sum, which the enraptured heir duly consigned to his pocket, whistling an opera-air as he conveyed each consecutive bank-note of a thousand francs to that particular destination. He then bade adieu to M. Deleux, promised to call in the course of ten days, and sauntered out of the office, not deigning to return the salutation of the clerks, who, from the length of his interview with their master, deemed his call to be somewhat important, and treated him accordingly. So soon as he had once more arrived at the hotel, he called for his bill, and paid it under circumstances of extraordinary bustle and ostentation. He then sent for a tailor, shoemaker, hatter, and hosier, and speedily equipped himself cap-a-pie in new garments, declaring that he was not accustomed to be so long without his baggage, which by this time he had increased to six large trunks and fourteen small ones. The waiter was nobly recompensed for the loan of his clothes; and in a few hours the liberality of “a certain nobleman travelling incognito, and stopping at the Hotel de ——,” was “bruited all over the town,” to use the language of ancient romance.

The same evening M. Delville returned from Calais, very irate at the treatment he had experienced from the companion of his debauch, and determined never again to compromise his character and his safety in so disreputable a manner, upon which Sans-géne expressed his resolution to make the old gentleman break his word as speedily as possible. How far they both kept their promises will shortly appear: in the meantime we must return to the chateau in the neighbourhood of Amiens, and the high-born inhabitants of the mansion of Grandmanoir.

Chapter Six: The Abbé Prud’homme

“How gorgeous is that sunset,” said Count de Montville to the two beautiful grand-daughters of the baroness, as they sate on the green lawn opposite the ancient chateau. “The rays of that departing sun are as welcome to the children of another hemisphere as they are to us; and while some regret their transitory absence, others hail their approach with a matin hymn.”

“It is scarcely marvellous,” observed Eugenie, “that semi-civilized nations should adore the sun. Their God is that which they believe to be the source of vegetation, life, heat, and regeneration; and in professing such a creed, they are scarcely to be pitied, much less blamed.”

“Is it the solemn stillness of the evening, dear sister, that renders us thus sentimental?” enquired the playful Clemence with a sweet sinile; then, while a deep sigh escaped her bosom, she added, “or is it, alas! the increased melancholy of the baroness since the visit of the Notary?”

“That melancholy is inexplicable,” said the count. “I have endeavoured to console my ancient friend as well as I possibly could—I have ventured to hint that if any pecuniary embarrassment have caused her pain, a remedy could easily be found—but it is all in vain, mesdemoiselles; a deep melancholy hangs over that powerful mind, and will shortly destroy its energies, if it be suffered to corrode there much longer.”

The young ladies watched with peculiar earnestness the count’s changing features as he spoke, and merely sighed a reciprocal assent to the truth of his observations. The young nobleman proceeded. “But, besides her Maker,” said he, “there is one man who knows the hidden cause of her mental sufferings—who advises her in difficult matters—who attends to her temporal interests as well as to her future welfare. He is the depositor of her secrets—he has made himself necessary to her—he alone can control her actions, if any one living have such power. And that man is the Abbé Prud’homme—a man whom I mistrust—a man whom I cannot even respect.— God knows wherefore—I may be wrong—I may injure him, deeply injure him—but I like him not; and my fears lead me to believe that his counsels are evil, and that those counsels will ruin her!”

The anxiety and interest which were depicted on the countenances of Eugenie and Clemence, as the count made this declaration, were most pungent in the breasts of both; and as they knew that the young nobleman was particularly cautious in the statements he usually advanced, they naturally fancied he had some just reasons to authorize the expression of his opinion with regard to the Abbé. Eugenie in particular endeavoured to cross-question him on the subject; but at the moment when her curiosity would have probably been satisfied, the count suddenly rose, made a hasty apology for leaving his fair companions, and ran towards a grove that was situate about a hundred yards from the chateau. Eugenie and Clemence looked anxiously in the direction he had taken, and shortly espied the Abbé Prud’homme seated on a bench amidst the trees. De Montville accosted the Abbé with a somewhat stern countenance, and addressed him as follows:—

“I am happy that we should have thus met, Father Joseph. For some time past, it has been my intention to converse with you on a few matters that now regard you, and probably may one day relate to myself; at least, circumstances might eventually authorize me to demand an explanation—”

“Demand an explanation, my lord!” ejaculated the Abbé, rising from the bench on which he had been seated, and assuming an air of injured pride.

“Yes—demand an explanation!” repeated de Montville. “And, first, Monsieur l’Abbé, allow me to tell you,” continued the young nobleman, “that I mistrust you—”

“My lord!”

“Interrupt me not! I mistrust you, Sir; and it is my intention to make you reply to a few questions which I shall presently put to you.”

“Lord de Montville,” said the Abbé, with admirable coolness, “your language is as inexplicable as it is rude and unseemly. If you hope to intimidate me with harsh expressions, or excite my feelings by severe taunts, your lordship will be mistaken.”

“Know you this hand-writing?” cried de Montville, taking a piece of paper from his pocket, and holding it before the priest’s eyes. The Abbé glanced at it for one moment—started—and then suddenly collecting himself, he calmly said, “The writing is similar to my own—but it, nevertheless, is not mine. Some one has forged that document.”

“Wretch!” cried the count in a voice of thunder, as he returned the paper to his pocket, and advanced towards the priest with a threatening air; “do you mean to insinuate that I am capable of such a deed?”

“I insinuate nothing,” replied the priest coolly; “I would merely observe, that he who would peruse a paper, which he may have found, is capable of a darker act of treachery.”

“My suspicions are well grounded then!” observed the count, the flush of rage having left his cheek, and an expression of the most sovereign contempt curling his lip. “Alas! poor baroness!”

“Rather say, ‘Alas! poor Clemence!’” muttered the priest; “for when the grand secret shall be known, Count de Montville will pay his addresses to the heiress of some rich estate afar from Grandmanoir!

The young nobleman heard these mysterious words with an indifference that was as evanescent as it was extraordinary. A moment elapsed ere the singularity of the priest’s observation struck him; and then he knew not how to reply. He cast his eyes upon the ground, reflected on the ambiguity of the Abbé’s behaviour, and puzzled himself in vain to find some reasonable meaning for the words that had astonished him. It was evident the priest thought that he was attached to the younger sister; but what grand secret there existed to be made known, and how the revelation of it would affect Clemence, he was at a loss to conceive. A minute’s consideration determined him to question the priest in a most peremptory manner on the subject; but, when he raised his head, the “holy father” was no longer in his presence.

Prud’homme, alarmed at the remark he had made, and the half-promise of revealing a secret into which his anger had betrayed him, hastily retreated from the grove the moment his lips had given utterance to words so rash. Without any apparent aim, but in all probability to while away an hour ere he should return to the chateau where he was certain to encounter the young nobleman again, the Abbé bent his steps in the direction of the city, and walked a considerable way on the Amiens road. The evening was beautiful and cool, a clear sky above was already spangled with many stars, and a silvery moon beamed chaste and fair in her own celestial sphere. But the priest was totally unmindful of the beauties of nature at that moment; his breast was pregnant with mingled feelings of anger, ambition, and alarm. A more unholy sentiment still predominated also in that breast; and as he threaded his way along the road that ran through the grove, he frequently struck his forehead with impatience, and muttered the name of Eugenie! Dark were his thoughts —darker his machinations—his countenance was ghastly pale, and his features were frequently distorted for some minutes into hideous expressions, the result of violent internal emotions.

The Abbé was aroused from his reverie by the sounds of approaching wheels; and presently he descried a small carriage, drawn by two fleet horses, hastening towards the chateau in a direction directly opposite to that pursued by himself. The moment the equipage was met by the worthy scion of the church, the driver pulled up his horses, and respectfully saluted Father Joseph.

“Are you bound for Grandmanoir?” enquired the priest.

“I was, may it please your reverence,” answered Jean Maillot, the well-known coachman usually employed by the proprietor of the Hotel de France; “but now that I have encountered you, my commission is more than half executed.”

“And what may that be?’ demanded the priest in partial astonishment.

“There is a sick man at our house,” replied Jean hastily; “and having made a variety of enquiries relative to the various people in the neighbourhood, he immediately despatched me to request you to call upon him, when your name and rank were mentioned.”

“This is strange——passing strange!” murmured the priest; then, without asking another question, he stepped into the carriage, and was speedily set down at the door of the Hotel de France. A multitude of obsequious bows on the part of the landlord, and a catalogue of polite enquiries relative to the baroness, and the jeunes demoiselies on that of the hostess, rather assailed than welcomed Father Joseph, when he made his appearance in the court-yard of the hotel. His acknowledgments and replies were courteous but hasty; and were speedily cut short by a request to be immediately shown to the apartment of the Chevalier d’Altamont, for such was the name, according to the information he obtained from the host, of the sick gentleman lodging in the hotel. The Abbé was accordingly conducted to the chevalier’s apartment, where he found that gentleman, who has already been introduced to the reader, reclining on a sofa placed near the open window, through which the evening breeze was wafted to fan his thin grey locks and cool his feverish cheeks.

“Benedice, mi fili,” cried the priest, as he advanced towards the chevalier, and made the sign of the cross. “Meseems that the hand of sickness is upon thee; but if thou hast sent to me for ghostly comfort”

“Ghostly comfort!” cried the chevalier with a smile of contempt, as he raised himself upon his left arm, and motioned the priest to be seated with his right hand; “ ghostly comfort!” he repeated in a less severe tone, “no, Abbé Prudhomme, I am not so deeply affected with corporeal suffering as thou may’st imagine; and had I required ghostly comfort, as thou art pleased to call it, I might have sent to other priests in the neighbourhood, whose abode is not so distant as thine.”

The priest gazed in mute astonishment at the singular language which issued from the lips of that old but venerable personage; while the chevalier proceeded in a more conciliatory tone.

“You are a clever man, Monsieur Abbé, and a man of the world —eh? And a worldly-minded man. Start not—I mean no insult—as the communications I shall shortly make will fully prove; but I must touch a string in thy heart ere I unfold the secrets I have to confide to thee—a string which will oscillate to nothing but the contiguity of gold!”

“Chevalier d’Altamont,” began the priest, apparently irate at this unusual frankness on the part of a stranger.

“Silence—and be seated!” cried the old man, with a peculiar tone of command which the Abbé felt himself indescribably bound to obey. “Silence—I repeat—and affect not a virtue you cannot feel. You must serve me—yes—serve me, I repeat, in preference to a certain individual with whom I accidentally travelled a few days ago, and whose name did not transpire till after his departure—and that name is de Moirot!”

“De Moirot!” cried the priest, starting on his chair, and casting a look of mingled curiosity and dread at the venerable individual, who returned his glance with a calmness not unmixed with satisfaction. “De Moirot, did you say?”

“De Moirot, the Notary,” was the tranquil reply.

“I know him—know him well!” said the priest, laconically, perceiving that it was useless to dissimulate with the chevalier.

“I am aware of it; and you serve a treacherous friend, a dangerous enemy, and an unprincipled usurer,” continued d’Altamont, somewhat warmly. “But you must now enlist yourself in my service; and, in order to prove the advantages you will eventually reap by so doing, it is my intention to enter into certain details, which cannot fail to interest and surprise you, at the same time that they will induce you to forsake the cause of a villain.”

The priest drew his chair close to the sofa on which the chevalier was reclining, and settled himself to listen with the greatest attention; while the old gentleman, on his part, raised his body to a more elevated position, the better to recount his narrative, which he began in the following manner.

[1] Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Baroness: A Tale’, The Monthly Magazine, October 1837, pp. 382–90.