19th Century

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

Written by George W.M. Reynolds in 1837 and transcribed by Stephen Basdeo in 2021.

Chapter Seven: A Narrative of the Past

“It was in the year 1774,” said the Chevalier d’ Altamont to the all-attentive Abbé Prudhomme, “that I was first intimately acquainted with the baron and baroness of Grandmanoir.[1] The baroness was one of the most beautiful creatures that ever existed. But certain reasons oblige me to be concise on this head, or I might give you a description of a being a fairer than whom the sun ne’er shone upon. Her husband was deeply enamoured of her; and she for some time returned his affection with a reciprocal passion. Their union was blessed by the birth of an heir in 1775, and the baron’s happiness was complete. They were then residing at Grandmanoir; and a continued series of gaiety, balls, parties, &c., served to while away the time. There never were less than twenty or thirty visitors staying at the chateau, amongst whom I was invariably included. But the most constant guest—and the one whose presence appeared to be the most indispensable to the baron—was the duke de Dumaille.

 “The duke was the baron’s most intimate friend. They had been educated together at the same seminary in early youth, and had made a continental tour in each other’s company when they attained the period of their majority. About the same age, intimately connected by the ties of friendship, and both endowed with high rank and splendid fortunes, it was not astonishing that the duke de Dumaille and the baron de Grandmanoir should thus remain inseparable companions. The duke was remarkably handsome. Tall and well-formed, he had that aquiline cast of feature which so well corresponds with a commanding air and aristocratic bearing. His manners were fascinating in the extreme—he had a most retentive memory—he was fond of poetry and light literature, and was a great favourite with the ladies, whose vanity he flattered by the apposite compliments he paid their charms, by means of apt quotation, and whose amour propre he gratified by his specious adulation. He however made no secret of his amours; and many a quarrel did he occasion between a suspicious husband and a coquettish wife, on account of his unguarded allusions and reckless vaunts.

“To give you an idea of the nature of the friendship that existed between the duke de Dumaille and the baron of Grandmanoir, I need but mention an occurrence which took place in January 1776, and to which may eventually be traced the origin of all the pecuniary difficulties that now threaten the ancient family. You start—Monsieur l’Abbé—but I know more than you suspect—and I am perfectly aware that the baroness is at this moment involved in embarrassments, and that those embarrassments were the cause of de Moirot’s late visit. But to continue my anecdote. The duke was a notorious gambler, and one of the most extravagant men in existence. One evening—when the duke was supposed to be at Paris—a post-chaise suddenly drew up to the door of the chateau, and the lord of Dumaille descended the steps. He sought an immediate interview with the baron, and informed him that two days previously he had lost upwards of eight hundred thousand francs at play—that his estates were already mortgaged for a time—but that if the baron would advance the required sum for a period of fourteen years, the matter might be arranged to the satisfaction and convenience of all parties. The baron immediately accompanied the duke to Paris; and de Moirot senior procured the money on terms apparently easy at the moment, but which have since proved the origin of a thousand evils. An infamous deed was signed—the baron did not object to the conditions of it, so firmly did he rely upon the promises of the duke and his ability to repay the money at the period specified—and the cash was counted down on the table by the designing Notary, who perhaps entertained even then the most nefarious of all intentions with regard to Grandmanoir. However—suffice it to say that the duke was made happy—the baron pleased at having been so materially serviceable to a friend—and they returned to the chateau together. I merely relate this anecdote to exemplify the generous feeling of the baron, the obligations the duke lay under to him, and the cause of an encumbrance upon the estate, concerning which we shall have to speak anon. Thus all passed on happily and quietly for a season; and the baron was apparently the most enviable of beings.

“The days were passed in amusements of all kinds—the evenings in dancing, fétes champétres, or with music and cards. There were barges upon the canals, beautifully fitted up for the use of the visitors who were fond of water-excursions; hounds and huntsmen for the chase; and shooting apparatus for the sportsman. The ponds were filled with an abundance of fine fish; and many sought a recreation in, to me, the cruel art of angling. Thus was time whiled away on the wings of pleasure; and ennui was banished from those halls of delight.

“At length it came to the baron’s knowledge that the duke had expressed himself in ardent terms relative to the baroness. Of this circumstance I was well informed, residing, as I before told you, almost constantly at Grandmanoir. The baron knew full well the duke’s character and disposition, and did not for an instant doubt the truth of the communication that had been made to him. He however said nothing to him whom he had always treated and considered as his friend; but determined to watch the conduct of his youthful spouse, whose heart he could not persuade himself had been already estranged from the liege lord of her first affections.

“I shall not dwell at any length upon this portion of my narrative; nor shall I expatiate on the intense anxiety experienced by the baron during the few months that elapsed after suspicion and jealousy had once been awakened in his mind. Suspicion, M. l’Abbe, deprives you of sleep—turns the hours set apart for repose into restless vigils —chases the blood away from the cheek—plants untimely wrinkles on the brow—and causes you to start at the slightest whisper. And jealousy, M. l’Abbe, is the spider of the mind, that weaves its venomous webs around the finest fibres which concrete in the human breast, distorts all things into other shapes, gives false colours to the appearance of facts, and invests with importance the most groundless trifles. Such was the penalty to which the baron was subjected; but neither his suspicion nor his jealousy was devoid of foundation!”

Here the Chevalier d’Altamont hesitated for a moment to recover breath; and the Abbé Prud’homme awaited in the deepest suspense the conclusion of the tale.

“No,” continued the chevalier, “those suspicions were just—and that jealousy was not a vain and visionary idea. The baron confided all his secrets to me; my breast was the repository of all his sentiments, all his dread, and all his fears, as well as all his sorrows—and those sorrows, M. l’Abbé, were not trivial—they were deep and profound! If I speak with warmth, pardon me, for I was the baron’s dearest friend, and I feel his woes as pungently as if they were my own. Proofs—glaring and most unequivocal proofs—at length convinced the unhappy husband of his wife’s infidelity; and, in a moment of pardonable ire, the baron sought to slay the cruel seducer of innocence and yirtue, without allowing him an opportunity of preparing for self-defence. But the duke escaped—God only knows how—the effects of his injured friend’s just resentment; and immediately made a precipitate retreat from the chateau. I have since ascertained that, contrary to his usual and well-known habits, he never once alluded to the occurrence amongst his fashionable friends in the metropolis; but carefully avoided the subject when any question was put to him, or any allusion made to his breach with the baron of Grandmanoir. I did not fail subsequently to acquaint my injured friend with this (to him) important fact; and it considerably alleviated—if solace could be experienced in the midst of woes so deep as his—the acuteness of his sorrows.

“Few were the reproaches he breathed in the ears of his faithless spouse; to save his honour—to conceal the disgrace that had fallen upon his family—to prevent the possibility of a rencontre between himself or his wife and the infamous de Dumaille—these were now his sole aims, his sole desires. When we retrospect to past ages, and the misty times gone by, we see the first root of the ancient family of the baroness of Grandmanoir planted by the venerable Constable Montmorenci of St. Quentin renown; and through a series of successive centuries, during which many were the noble scions that were born to and died from that honourable stock, no disgrace—-no infamy had ever been attached to their glorious name. Can you wonder, then, Monsieur l’Abbé, that in his agony—in his despair—the baron came to the desperate resolution of realizing a portion of his vast possessions, and seeking a foreign clime whither he might bear the remembrance of his sorrows? His family was not less ancient—not less renowned—not less exalted by rank—nor less ennobled by the deeds of an illustrious ancestry; it was therefore necessary to save those two families from the vilifying impression of a lasting stigma. Dread was the resolve! to leave his native clime—to forsake his proud and lordly acquaintances—to banish himself from his paternal estate—to shun the glances of his fellow-countrymen—Oh! M. Abbé, you know not how galling such proceedings must have been to the haughty and unbending disposition of the peer of Grandmanoir!

“But he was inflexible in his determination. The stately hotel in the Faubourg Saint Germain was sold, the servants were dismissed, the furniture—yes, the very furniture—was disposed of, in order to convince the baroness of the stern resolve of her husband, and the uncertainty of their ever again returning to Paris; and they departed on a tour to Italy, leaving their extensive possessions under the control of a notary of the Rue Vivienne in Paris. I need scarcely inform you that this was M. de Moirot, the father of the present unworthy claimant to the estate of Grandmanoir.”

“Singular—most singular!” cried the Abbé, while the chevalier reposed for a moment, and drank a glass of wine which he poured from a bottle standing on the table in the middle of the room, but within his reach as he reclined upon the sofa. “All this is perfectly new and strange to me,” added Father Joseph, unable to refrain from expressing his astonishment.

“Strange and new!” cried the chevalier, almost contemptuously. “What! are you astonished that, amongst other communications, the baroness should have withheld from you the secret of her shame —of her disgrace? No; she thinks you are her friend—in her declining years she fancies she has need of your counsels in the emergency of her affairs; and she entrusts just so much to your wisdom as she chooses and is obliged by circumstances to do. Mistake her not, Abbé Prud’homme. I know her well—I was long intimate with her and her husband—in fine, I am this day engaged in her cause. But let me continue my narrative, ere the night shall be too far advanced.”

“Proceed,” said Father Joseph; “I am most anxious to know the result of these mysterious deeds.”

“The baron and his wife,” continued the chevalier, “left Paris, and proceeded towards the genial clime of Italy. When they bade adieu to their numerous friends and acquaintances, the baron suffered it to be believed that they merely intended to make a tour calculated to occupy two or three years; and that at the end of that period it would be their desire to return to France. But three years passed away—and they sought not again the enjoyments of their native land. I corresponded with the baron; and he informed me, at the expiration of those three years, that he was resolved never to set foot more on the estate where his honour had been so severely compromised, nor in that city where he had first selected the wife who had disgraced him. He moreover assured me, that he was living on amicable terms with the baroness, who seemed deeply to have repented of her fault; and that he was inclined to forgive her with all his heart and all his soul. At the same time he charged de Moirot to let the chateau and estate of Grandmanoir, as it would have been useless to suffer the lands to remain uncultivated, or the house to dwindle into decay. The notary obeyed these injunctions; a banker of repute declared his readiness to accept the lease on the terms proposed; and the bargain was forthwith concluded.

“The baron and baroness of Grandmanoir,” continued the chevalier, after a momentary pause, “at length fixed their abode in Florence, and gradually entered into the dissipations and pleasures of the Tuscan capital. Year succeeded year; the baron eagerly plunged into those ruinous courses that involve fortunes, fame, and rank in danger and jeopardy, because the excitement of cards, drinking, and riotous company, estranged his mind from a contemplation of his misfortune. On her part, the baroness did not fail to aid her noble husband in making away with their vast riches: she gave magnificent entertainments—kept a splendid equipage— hired a beautiful villa in the vale of Arno—and eyen astonished the wealthiest inhabitants of Florence by her expenditure and ostentatious disregard for money. Frequent and more frequent were the remittances despatched from Paris by M. de Moirot; and Grandmanoir was already heavily mortgaged, when, in the beginning of the year 1790, events occurred that effectually terminated so ruinous a course, destroyed the happiness of the baron for ever, involved his property in deeper jeopardy, and—and—but no matter—he was my friend, M. l’Abbé—and you will pardon these tears!”

The holy father said nothing; he was lost in deep thought—a multitude of new ideas and new schemes were already jarring in his breast—and he scarcely remarked the bitterness with which the venerable old man wept. A long interval ensued—the moon was by this time high in the heavens—the busy hum of the city was almost rocked in repose—and the bat winged his airy flight around the tall gables of the houses. The night was still calm and serene—not a cloud veiled the stars above—the darkness consisted of a dusky veil, whose surface was uniformly of the same hue, and was not varied by occasional vapours; and in that little apartment sate those two men—each with thoughts of vast import agitating his mind— each impatient to know the final resolutions or secrets of the other. The moon shone in at the window, and its placid rays played upon the silvery locks of the chevalier, and caused the tears to glisten as they rolled down his cheeks. That painful silence was long unbroken, while the Abbé and the chevalier remained absorbed, the one in his reflections, the other in his grief. At length d’Altamont started up—the iron tongue of the cathedral bell proclaimed the hour of eleven—and the sonorous note effectually aroused the inmates of the apartment to which we have introduced our reader, from their reflections.

“It is now mine,” said the chevalier, “to detail a succession of misfortunes that befell the baron, and that would have driven any other man to the verge of despair. In the midst of dissipation, rash expenditure, and ruinous gaiety—while music was nightly heard in the cassino hired by the baroness in the vale of Arno—and while the baron was unhappily giving way to habits of licentiousness that must speedily have consigned him to an untimely grave, had he not been suddenly arrested in his career—while de Moirot was deriving immense profits from his situation as intendant of the property of Grandmanoir—and while the eventual ruin of that noble family’s fortune and honour alike appeared to be threatened—the duke de Dumaille suddenly arrived in Florence! He was still gay, volatile, and handsome as he always had been; he had left Paris involved in irredeemable difficulties, and with the remnants of his once princely fortune had sought the Tuscan capital wherein to fix his future residence.

“The baron was absent, on a visit to an Italian nobleman at Venice, when the duke de Dumaille made his appearance in the Etrurian metropolis; and it was only on his return to the cassino inhabited by his wife from time to time, in the vale of Arno—a return that was sudden and totally unanticipated by her—a return that took place at midnight, when all was gaiety, with dancing, music, and mirth in the country residence—it was only then that the baron first became aware of the duke’s presence in Florence, and encountered him in the salons of the baroness, surrounded by the gay Italian youths who flitted about the handsome and noble Frenchman, and were proud to be honoured by his smiles. For a moment the baron’s brow darkened, and his hand sought his sword; but respect for himself and for his family restrained his indignation, and he bowed distantly to the duke, who saluted him with a half-impudent, half-patronising inclination of the head. That night a terrible scene took place between the baron and his spouse, and a confession of a renewed guilty intercourse was slowly elicited from the unwilling lips of the lost woman!

“Misfortunes never come singly, M. l’Abbé,” pursued the chevalier, hastily quitting the subject which related to the arrival of de Dumaille at Florence; “no—calamity in its visits is never unattended. On the following morning—after that eventful night—the baron received letters from Paris. Some of them were from friends, announcing, in a casual manner, the flight of the duke from his creditors; and others were from de Moirot, containing information of the same fact, and advertising the baron of the non-payment of the enormous sum advanced in 1776, as I before stated. These news were sufficient to paralyze the energies of any common individual; but the baron endeavoured to bear up against his misfortunes with fortitude and magnanimity. He knew it was useless to apply to de Dumaille—even if he would have condescended to do so; he therefore immediately wrote to de Moirot for a correct and detailed account of the exact position of his affairs, the amounts of the mortgages on his ancestral domains, the liabilities under which he lay—in fine, a precise schedule of his debts and his possessions. This was speedily procured, and its contents for a time entirely stupefied the unfortunate baron. He was tottering on the verge of ruin, and a desperate sacrifice could alone save him. The non-fulfilment of the conditions imposed upon him in 1776 by the deed bearing the signature of himself and the duke de Dumaille, empowered the treacherous and designing de Moirot to enter into full and incontestable possession of a considerable portion of the estate of Grandmanoir. The interest upon the eight hundred thousand francs, which sum was the amount—as you may remember—of the original loan, had been suffered to accumulate; and, by the consequence of an enormous increase of compound interest, that original amount was now more than doubled. A sacrifice could be made—that is to say, a certain risk was to be run—and that sacrifice, and that risk, were both proposed by the avaricious de Moirot, who offered to draw up a new deed, corroborative in principle of the conditions detailed in the old one, and merely setting aside the conclusion of that original document by the simple change of granting a much more elongated period for the payment of the money, in default of which de Moirot should enter into possession of the entire estate of Grandmanoir. The interest was to be paid regularly at the usual intervals; and, after a proper valuation of the estate, in order that the delay might be commensurate with the circumstances in favour of de Moirot, the procrastinated period of payment was settled to take place on the 14th of August, 1822, with a month’s due notice. Thus to gratify the avaricious calculations of one man, and to suit the convenience of another, was concluded the most villainous private commercial treaty[2] ever concocted by a notary, or signed by a land-holder! I subsequently understood that de Moirot settled this anticipated wealth—that is, either the sum due, or the estate itself—on his younger son Alfred, of whose mysterious disappearance I have since been informed.”

 “And the baroness—,” said the Abbé Prud’homme, taking advantage of another pause in the chevalier’s narrative to put a question that might elicit the information he required.

“The baroness,” exclaimed the chevalier sharply. “Well—while these things were being done, her son throve—and the features of the boy resembled those of his sire.”

“But what steps did the baron take—?” interrupted the Abbé, looking at his watch, and manifesting a certain impatience which indicated his anxiety to depart.

“For some time he devoured his wrath—for some time he tolerated the visits of the duke at his house in Florence—and for some time he merely reproached his wife in secret for having again permitted herself to associate with her former seducer. But when the transactions with de Moirot were concluded, and when de Dumaille had so long been received at the hotel of the baron de Grandmanoir as to prevent any suspicion concerning the real cause of a rupture, the injured husband sought a pretext to quarrel with his rival, and a duel ensued. The hostile parties met at a secluded place in the vale of Arno—they were accompanied by seconds—they fired at the same time—and the baron was left for dead!”

“But he did not die—he survived that event,” exclaimed the Abbé hastily, and casting a peculiar glance of suspicion or doubt on the flushing countenance of the chevalier.

“Ah! how knowest thou that?” demanded the venerable d’Altamont, starting from his recumbent position, and sitting upright on the sofa, while he gave the Abbé a look which seemed to read the reverend father’s inmost soul.

“Your confidence shall be met with equal confidence,” said the Abbé calmly. “During de Moirot’s visit the other day, I overheard all that passed between him and the baroness—I listened in an adjoining apartment—solicitude for her welfare urged me to be thus indiscreet; and in the course of their conversation, de Moirot made use of these words,—‘Were my brother Alfred de Moirot in existence, then the lands of Grandmanoir would pass away from me and my heirs for ever. Such was my father’s will—as your deceased husband well knew!’ Now Alfred de Moirot was only born in 1791—so far as my information—”

“That may be!” cried the chevalier, “because the baron did live another year after the duel that was eventually fatal in its results; and only de Moirot, the baroness, her son, and myself knew that he survived the combat that year; for the baroness, accompanied by her child, returned to France in deep mourning, and it was circulated amongst their friends that the lord of Grandmanoir was no more. Only de Moirot and ourselves knew to the contrary; and after a lapse of twelve months, he, the baroness, and I received letters from a surgeon in an obscure village in the south of Italy, informing us of his demise. This is the real truth, and will account for the words uttered by de Moirot. And should you ask wherefore the baron despatched his wife and only son again to France—should you ask wherefore he was desirous of being deemed no more a denizen of this world—seek the reply in the fact that his honour was tainted, that the real cause of the duel was bruited abroad, that, in a moment of intoxication, the duke de Dumaille avowed the deed to his convivial companions, and more than hinted at his ancient liaison with the baroness. The injured husband was fain to hide his dishonoured head in solitude and retirement; he knew that in France, and on her own estate, his wife would be safe from the persecutions, or rather assiduities of de Dumaille, whose embarrassments in pecuniary matters were an effectual bar to his residence in his native land. Such, M. Abbé, were the motives that influenced the baron in his singular mode of conduct—singular, perhaps, to you and to me, but reasonable when connected with an individual entertaining the highest sense of family honour, and jealous of the breath of aspersion!”

Here the chevalier paused, and as the last words, which he uttered with considerable emphasis, escaped his lips, the cathedral clock tolled the hour of midnight. But it was not until past three in the morning that the Abbé arrived once more at the chateau. The faithful historian of these memoirs is as yet unaware of what passed between the venerable chevalier and the reverend Father Joseph during the two long hours that intervened between the moment when the former brought his narrative down to the epoch at which the baroness returned to France, and when the latter took his departure. Matters of vast importance were doubtless discussed; else never would the careful priest have suffered himself to run the chance of catching the rheumatism by being exposed to the night air; nor would M. d’Altamont have so long refrained from seeking the luxuries of his tranquil couch. But the subject of their debates is for the present involved in mystery and doubt.

[1] G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Baroness: A Novel’, The Monthly Magazine, November 1837, pp. 493–500.

[2] The details of this transaction are partially founded on fact.