19th Century

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

Originally written by George W.M. Reynolds in 1837, and transcribed by Stephen Basdeo

For previous instalments of this fascinating tale see post tagged with The Baroness

Chapter Eight: The Love Letter

“It is most unaccountable,” said M. Delville, “particularly as the conducteur of the Diligence swore that a gentleman, who was with me, and who appeared to be nearly as intoxicated as myself, helped me into the vehicle, and declared that I was bound for Calais.”[1]

Eh! bien, my dear friend,” exclaimed Sans-géne; “but have I not pledged my word and honour that I am as innocent with regard to your adventure as the Great Mogul himself? We were walking very quietly along the road, and parted in an equally quiet manner.”

“How was that?” enquired the still half credulous Delville.

“Simply by falling into a ditch,” returned Sans-géne. “But you expressed your intention the other day of visiting Calais; so, I suppose, that as the mountain would not come to Mahomet, Mahomet was obliged to go to the mountain.”

“That may be,” observed M, Delville; “but if ever I be again led away by the inducements you hold out, M. Sans-géne, to dissipation and debauch, then call me one of the most versatile characters you have yet encountered.”

Nous verrons—nous verrons!” cried Sans-géne, rubbing his hands together, and casting a satisfied look at his person in the reflecting Psyche opposite to where he sate.

“And what may be the cause of these wise resolutions?”

“To tell you the truth,” murmured M. Delville in a voice which he affected to render peculiarly sentimental, “I must be upon my guard, for I am certain my actions are watched.”

“Watched!” cried Sans-géne: “how? by the police?” “Oh! no; by a soubrette—a lady’s maid, you know,” was the reply, accompanied by a cunning smile.

“Ah! I understand—an affair of gallantry—a little amour—eh ?” observed Sans-géne, adding to the broad hint conveyed by his remark the additional emphasis of a blow or poke between M. Delville’s ribs in the most sensitive part.

“You are right; but not with the lady’s-maid,” returned the old gentleman, sitting uneasily on his chair from the effects of the introduction of Sans-géne’s knuckles between his bones.

“Not with the lady’s-maid!” exclaimed Sans-géne. “Who then is the happy fair one that has captivated the illustrious Delville?”

“Her mistress!” was the solemn reply.

“All honourable, correct, straight-forward, eh?” said Sans-géne.

“Oh! yes; a widow, my dear fellow—a rich widow, and as lovely as she is wealthy.”

Peste!” ejaculated Sans-géne; “cannot you introduce a. friend, old boy?”

“With pleasure—I am not jealous,” answered Delville; “although I have not yet proposed—that is, expressed myself in direct terms. A thousand little hints, you know, but nothing farther. And, while I think of it, the divine creature honoured me with a letter this very morning, demanding an explanation; and, in fine, requesting to be definitively acquainted with my intentions.”

“That was modest, at all events!” observed Sans-géne, “Did you answer the effusion?”

“Not yet,” replied M. Delville. “The fact is, between you and me, I occasionally—only occasionally, recollect—wear spectacles; and—and I find it disagreeable to write without them. I do not say it is impossible, mind—merely inconvenient; and, if you remember, I had my spectacles on my nose—”

“When we issued in a tolerable hurry from the cabaret together,” said Sans-géne.

“Yes,” continued Delville; “and also when I tumbled—that is, fell—”

“Into the ditch, where you lost them; and at present you are sans lunettes,” hastily observed Sans-géne, in order to cut short a long story.

“You have hit it precisely; the real truth is now unfolded,” said Delville.

“Have you ever written to the lady in question before?”

“Never,” replied the old gentleman.

“Nor does she know your hand-writing?” persisted Sans-géne. “I once showed her how I made my P’s and D’s.”

“Pshaw! is that all?”

“Farther than those letters are concerned, Madame Gaston is totally unacquainted with my hand-writing.”

“Good!” cried Sans-géne; “I will indite a letter for you. Setting aside the spelling, my hand is tolerably decent.”

“No!” ejaculated M. Delville, his countenance expressing a certain band delight which called a smile to the lips of his companion. “Will you really do me that service?”

“Certainly,” said Sans-géne; and having arranged the writing materials upon the table in M. Delville’s room, where they were seated, he desired the old gentleman to dictate the reply he was anxious to transmit to Madame Gaston, for that was the name of the fair inamorata.

Adorable creature,” commenced M. Delville, “It is with the deepest sense of gratitude and love that—

“Excellent!” cried Sans-géne. “Proceed.”

That I take up my pen to— must I say ‘my pen’?”

“Certainly. How is she to know any thing to the contrary?” demanded Sans-géne, who was very busily engaged in writing.

“Well, then,” continued M. Delville,—“that I take up my pen to acknowledge the receipt of your welcome epistle, and reply in a style which I hope will not fail to please you. Proud that my attentions have not been thrown away, and that my personal appearance is not displeasing, I venture to offer up the incense of a pure affection at the altar of—of— what shall I say?”

“Ridicule and folly!” said Sans-géne, whose hand was busily employed in tracing certain characters on the paper before him, and whose mind was at the moment rather absent.

“Nonsense!” exclaimed M. Delville, thinking that his amanuensis was lightly treating a serious matter.

“Say, ‘at the altar of beauty and mental accomplishments; and so soon as I shall have been blessed with the supreme felicity of calling myself your husband, my constant endeavour to study your happiness only will demonstrate more forcibly than all the flowers of rhetoric, the extent of my affection. I remain, dear madam, your constant adorer, Mathieu Delville’.”

Sans-géne scribbled away, and much longer than M. Delville continued to dictate, which at first astonished the old gentleman. He was however re-assured, when Sans-géne threw down his pen, and said, “Well, so far so good; I have copied your effusion precisely as it issued from your honied lips; but I do not mean to run the risk of figuring in the pillory, and then taking a quiet morning’s walk to the galleys at Brest or Toulon, for the small inadvertency called forgery. Pray, mon cher ami, sign your own name: that surely you may accomplish even without glasses.”

To this reasonable demand M. Delville assented, and accordingly subjoined his two appellations—prenomen and cognomen—to the paper which Sans-géne placed in a convenient position before him. The letter was then folded up, sealed, and duly addressed to “Madame veuve Gaston,” &c. &c. In the course of an hour an answer was returned, to the effect that the fair widow would have much pleasure in receiving Messieurs Delville and Sans-géne that evening to partake of supper, &c., at half-past nine o’clock.

“Peste!” exclaimed Delville; “you have already created a sensation in Boulogne, mon cher. But how could Madame Gaston know that we were intimate?”

“She has doubtless seen us together,” observed Sans-géne, suppressing a smile that would have been peculiarly significant, had not prudence “nipped it in the bud.”

“True!” cried Delville; “and perhaps she knows that you are a nobleman in disguise?”

“Oh! I hope not,” exclaimed Sans-géne hastily. “Would it not be better if you were to pass me off as your nephew?”

“With pleasure!” ejaculated Delville, who was flattered by the proposal, in which he saw no sinister view.

Having adjusted these important matters, the two gentlemen proceeded to refresh themselves with a walk upon the pier; and when they had snuffed a sufficiency of the sea-breeze for that day, they returned to the hotel and partook of an exquisite repast at the seemly hour of six. The conversation did not once vary from the topic that appeared essentially to interest both parties, viz. Madame Gaston; and Sans-géne gratified his curiosity by causing M. Delville to put him in possession of all particulars relative to that lady’s personal attractions and worldly goods. The substance of the old gentleman’s communication was, “that Madame Gaston was the widow of a wealthy merchant—that she enjoyed an income of four hundred pounds per annum—that she was about thirty-six years of age, tall and moderately stout—and that she was very anxious to supply the place of the deceased negociant with another protector.” Sans-géne was peculiarly satisfied with the colouring of this picture, and forbore to make such frequent applications to the wine-bottle as was his wont: determined, however, that the hotel-keeper should not be a loser by this unusual abstemiousness, he plied M. Delville to the heart’s content of that worthy individual, who was so intoxicated by the prospect of uniting himself to a widow possessing charms not entirely connected with outward show, that he forgot his wise resolutions, and did not hesitate to drink off repeated bumpers to her health and their mutual happiness.

At half-past nine Messieurs Delville and Sans-géne rang at the door of Madame Gaston’s house, and were immediately admitted to that lady’s presence. The room in which she was seated was elegantly furnished; and Madame Gaston herself was an elegant woman (for her age), and was, in the true French sense of the word, elegantly dressed. She welcomed Delville with a courteous smile, and cast a glance of mingled cunning and bashfulness—a look that would have been exceedingly sly, had its acumen not been suppressed by a latent modesty or confusion—at Sans-géne.

“M. Delville is welcome—and his nephew—” began Madame Gaston.

“My nephew!” exclaimed M. Delville in astonishment; “how did it become known that—”

“Oh!” cried Sans-géne, almost precipitating himself upon his venerable companion, “all the world at Boulogne knows that I am your nephew; I foolishly spread the report myself; and—”

“And—and—the letter, you remember!” murmured Madame Gaston in M. Delville’s ear.

“Eh! the letter—what? he did not confess—”

“Oh! no; not he!” said Madame Gaston in the same sotto voce.

“So much the better!” cried M. Delville, almost bewildered with wine and a consciousness of some mystery which he could not ex- plain, while Sans-géne hastened to turn the conversation.

Monsieur has not been long at Boulogne-sur-Mer?” observed Madame Gaston, fixing her large blue eyes with a peculiar expression on Sans-géne.

“No, Madame, only a few days. I came hither for the purpose of receiving a considerable fortune from a lawyer in this town, under the will of a deceased relative.”

“What! is it possible? were you related to the late M. Sans-géne of the Basse-Ville?” exclaimed Madame Gaston, drawing back her chair a few paces, and suffering her features to contract into a frown.

“I have not that honour, Madame,” replied the adventurer: “a coincidence of names—nothing more, L assure you.” “Singular, indeed !” cried the lady, suddenly relapsing into smiles once more.

“And does M. Sans-géne intend to make a long stay?”

Ma chere,” interrupted M. Delville—“for so I may now call you, under existing circumstances—”

“Certainly! certainly!” interrupted Sans-géne in his turn, and with impolite haste; “oh! certainly—matrimonial speculations—little familiarities—drop all ceremony—ma chere—certainly, certainly !”— then, without giving M. Delville time to recover from his anger and astonishment, nor Madame Gaston from her pretty confusion, he said, “Yes, Madame, I came hither for the purpose of receiving a large sum of money; and thinking that the sea air might agree with me, I desired Laplace and Lafleur, my two domestics, to follow with the horses. One is so dull in a strange place without one’s stud; but now that I have the honour—”

Ma chere!” again interrupted M. Delville, the influence of wine and the green-eyed monster working upon him; “considering our relative situations, I think you might condescend to address a few words to me, who—”

“What! do you already repent?” cried Madame Gaston, flirting with her fan, behind which she partially concealed her face.

“Repent! How—repent! Really methinks, Madame, that after the letter I had the honour—”

“It is precisely that letter,’ exclaimed Madame Gaston, “that—”

“Exactly, the letter!” shouted Sans-géne, purposely letting fall his handkerchief, and giving Delville a tremendous pinch on the calf of his leg, as he stooped to pick it up.

The colloquy would doubtless have become more and more mystified, and M. Delville more and more at a loss to understand the ambiguous portions of it, had not the entrance of the servant to announce that supper was served up, happily terminated a discourse which seemed to be as incomprehensible to the old gentleman as it was eagerly avoided, or rather dreaded, by Sans-géne. In fact, the only person who was not essentially displeased by it was Madame Gaston; and the effect it produced upon her was a series of blushes, flirtings with the fan, and various little coquetteries which she enacted for her own peculiar benefit.

A magnificent repast was spread out in an adjoining apartment. A paté de fois gras stood on one side of the table, and a cold poulet truffé on the other. A fricandeau de veau, reposing in a bed of oseille, afforded a pleasing spectacle and gratifying odour; and a dish of cotelettes de mouton a la jardiniere crowned the banquet. Champagne and the best Bordeaux-Laflitte garnished a dumb-waiter placed near the table; while nosegays of beautiful flowers, tastefully arranged on the mantel-piece, gave a sweet perfume amidst the grosser emanations from the inviting supper.

“Delicious!” cried M. Delville, as with a vacant eye he surveyed the banquet thus spread out.

Asseyons-nous, Messieurs,” said the courteous lady of the house, “and do honour to my preparation, M. Sans-géne, this is your place, next to me; M. Delville, take the chair at the bottom of the table.”

Mais, ma chere,” commenced the discomfited old gentleman.

“No remonstrances, my dear M. Delville!” exclaimed Madame Gaston; then, in a sort of half whisper, she added, “You are not consistent—you appear to repent of your determination every moment—and forget the ‘ridicule and folly’, as you yourself express it—”

“Upon my honour, Madam, this is a mystery—”

Allons! interrupted Sans-géne, “are we to stand prattling all the evening, while so many good things await our attack? Pray seat yourself, M. Delville;” and, without any more ado, he quietly pushed that gentleman into the chair indicated by Madame Gaston.

“Here is some mystery that I cannot understand,” muttered Delville to himself; “but resignation is at present my only resource, in addition to a good supper;” with which consolations, and particularly the latter, he managed to amuse himself for the better portion of half an hour.

In the meantime Sans-géne was remarkably assiduous to Madame Gaston, and she on her part lavished a considerable quantity of smiles and tender looks upon the attentive swain. The Champagne circulated, and Delville did not forget to dispose of his share; while the effects of the wine were evidenced on the part of Sans-géne by the lively sallies of wit that escaped him, and on that of Madame Gaston by an increasing tenderness of disposition manifested in favour of her facetious neighbour. So long as M. Delville was agreeably occupied by the discussion of meats and generous wines, he did not notice the repeated oeillades that passed between his two companions; but when his hunger was appeased, he had more time for observation; and whether it were that being intoxicated, and seeing double, he fancied Madame Gaston’s conduct towards Sans-géne had something more in it than common civility warranted, or that he was naturally of a querulous disposition in his cups, and apt to be offended at a trifle, we know not. Suffice it to say that in a fit of inordinate passion he presently arose from his seat, supporting himself by the table, and exclaimed at the top of his voice—

“Madame, your conduct is disgraceful; and I hereby renounce all intention of fulfilling any engagement I may have contracted with you.”

“Oh! I thought you would repent,” cried the lady with a sweet and conciliatory smile, while Sans-géne sate uneasily on his chair.

“Repent, Madam! yes—I do repent—and I am sorry that my egregious folly could have—could have—that is—”

“Your nephew is not under age, I presume, Sir,” said Madame Gaston very coolly, and with a species of triumph depicted on her countenance.

“Nephew! Madame!” ejaculated the irate old gentleman, his face purple with anger; “he is not my nephew—he is a total stranger—a vaurien—a mange-tout for any thing that I know.”

“At least you yourself assured me that he was your nephew.”

“Who? I, Madam!”

“Yes, Monsieur; you, in your letter of this morning!” continued Madame Gaston, now angry in her turn; and producing the epistle from her reticule, she added, “I am sorry, Sir, you so soon forget your own assertions; pray recall them to your memory;” and with these words she handed over the letter to M. Delville, who was not so far advanced on the high road of intoxication as not to be able to distinguish the contents, which ran as follows:—

Chere Madame,

I have received your kind and welcome note, and should have replied to it sooner, had I not mislaid my spectacles, without which I can no more write than dance in the ballet at the opera. I have, however, maturely considered the purport of your letter; and candidly confess that it would be the height of folly and an act subject to the extreme of ridicule on my part to think of espousing a lovely young woman thirty years my junior. I have therefore purposed to introduce to your notice my nephew, M. Sans-géne, an excellent and worthy young man, whose fortune is considerable, and whose good looks cannot fail to win your esteem. Should a reciprocal attachment ensue, I shall still be able to enjoy the pleasure of your society, and still sign myself

Your truly devoted servant,

Mathieu Delville.

p.s. Should you be disengaged this evening, I might have the opportunity of introducing my beloved nephew.

While M. Delville was occupied in the perusal of the above modest and elegantly-worded epistle, Sans-géne and Madame Gaston were employed by a trifling explanation which the former thought fit to tender that lady.

“Adorable creature,” said he, “pardon the audacity of my conduct! I had heard of your beauty, your accomplishments, and your virtue; and I was anxious to possess such a treasure. Being at a loss to find the means of introducing myself to your notice, I adopted a venial though somewhat fraudulent method to effect my purpose. That method was the following one:”—and Sans-géne related in a few words the whole adventure, which, so far from vexing or offending Madame Gaston, not only pleased her, but raised Sans-géne to a considerable eminence in her opinion.

“Traitor!” cried M. Delville, when he had managed to put himself in possession of the contents of the letter; “I could tear your very flesh from your body; but I prefer the adoption of other measures, which I shall put into immediate effect, and thus avenge my injured honour;” and having delivered himself of this eloquent oration, M. Delville reeled, fell back into his chair, and relieved his sorrows by the powerful medicine recommendable in such cases—Moëtt’s best Champagne. He then relapsed into a gentle slumber, and thus allowed the tender couple, that anxiously watched his motions, a full opportunity of discussing the pleasant adventure which threw them together, and of indirectly gathering from each other—which was the principal and visible aim of both—all particulars relative to their respective property. Madame Gaston was mistress of the sum of a hundred and seventy-five thousand francs (7,000l. sterling), which was vested in the funds; and the disposal of which depended entirely upon her own discretion. Sans-géne, in his turn, recapitulated the various items of his own possessions; and with considerable emphasis, most likely to give an additional air of truth to his very probable assertions, detailed the produce of his estate in Burgundy, his farm near Fontainbleau, his houses in Paris, and his share in a London banking establishment, “well known,” he said, “as the firm of Bull, Beef, and Port.” In addition to these handsome revenues, he failed not to mention the sum of a couple of hundred thousand francs which he had to receive in a few days from his lawyer at Boulogne, and which had called him away from the gaieties and pleasures of the French metropolis, to the fashionable society of which he was a brilliant ornament. These communications naturally delighted the several parties interested in them; and the already “enamoured pair” separated with many sweet smiles, Sans-géne promising to send the two porters of the hotel with a shutter or a wheelbarrow to fetch the still slumbering and disappointed Dellville.

[1] Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Baroness: A Tale’, The Monthly Magazine, January 1838, pp. 57–62.