The Baron d'Azan was old--older even than his seventy years. His age showed by contrast as he walked among his trees. They were fresh and flourishing, full of sap and vigor, though many of them had been born long before him.
The tracts of forest which still belonged to his diminished estate were crowded with the growths native to the foot-hills of the Ardennes. In the park around the small chateau, built in a Belgian version of the First Empire style, trees from many lands had been assembled by his father and grandfather: drooping spruces from Norway, dark-pillared cypresses from Italy, spreading cedars from Lebanon, trees of heaven from China, fern-leaved gingkos from Japan, lofty tulip-trees and liquidambars from America, and fantastic sylvan forms from islands of the Southern Ocean. But the royal avenue of beeches! Well, I must tell you more about that, else you can never feel the meaning of this story.
The love of trees was hereditary in the family and antedated their other nobility. The founder of the house had begun life as the son of a forester in Luxemburg. His name was Pol Staar. His fortune and title were the fruit of contracts for horses and provisions which he made with the commissariat of Napoleon I. in the days when the Netherlands were a French province. But though Pol Staar's hands were callous and his manners plain, his tastes were aristocratic. They had been formed young in the company of great trees.
Therefore when he bought his estate of Azan (and took his title from it) he built his chateau in a style which he considered complimentary to his imperial patron, but he was careful also to include within his domain large woodlands in which he could renew the allegiance of his youth. These woodlands he cherished and improved, cutting with discretion, planting with liberality, and rejoicing in the thought that trees like those which had befriended his boyhood would give their friendly protection to his heirs. These are traits of an aristocrat--attachment to the past, and careful provision for posterity. It was in this spirit that Pol Staar, first Baron d'Azan, planted in 1809 the broad avenue of beeches, leading from the chateau straight across the park to the highroad. But he never saw their glory, for he died when they were only twenty years old.
His son and successor was of a different timber and grain; less aristocratic, more bourgeois--a rover, a gambler, a man of fashion. He migrated from the gaming-tables at Spa to the Bourse at Paris, perching at many clubs between and beyond, and making seasonal nests in several places. This left him little time for the Chdteau d'Azan. But he came there every spring and autumn, and showed the family fondness for trees in his own fashion. He loved the forests so much that he ate them. He cut with liberality and planted without discretion. But for the great avenue of beeches he had a saving admiration. Not even to support the gaming-table would he have allowed them to be felled.
When he turned the corner of his thirty-first year he had a sharp illness, a temporary reformation, and brought home as his wife a very young lovely actress from the ducal theatre at Saxe-Meiningen. She was a good girl, deeply in love with her handsome husband, to whom she bore a son and heir in the first year of their marriage. Not many moons thereafter the pleased but restless father slid back into his old rounds again. The forest waned and the debts waxed. Rumors of wild doings came from Spa and Aix, from Homburg and Baden, from Trouville and Ostend. After four years of this the young mother died, of no namable disease, unless you call it heart-failure, and the boy was left to his grandmother's care and company among the trees.
Every day when it was fair the old lady and the little lad took their afternoon walk together in the beech-tree avenue, where the tips of the branches now reached the road. At other times he roamed the outlying woods and learned to know the birds and the little wild animals. When he was twelve his grandmother died. After that he was left mainly to the housekeeper, his tutors, and the few friends he could make among the children of the neighborhood.
When he had finished his third year at the University of Louvain and attained his majority, his father returned express-haste from somewhere in Bohemia, to attend the coronation of Leopold II, that remarkable King of Belgium and the Bourse. But by this time the gay Baron d'Azan had become stout, the pillar of his neck seemed shorter because it was thicker, and the rose in his bold cheek had the purplish tint of a crimson rambler. So he died of an apoplexy during the festivities, and his son brought him back to the Chateau d'Azan, and buried him there with due honor, and mourned for him as was fitting. Thus Albert, third Baron d'Azan, entered upon his inheritance.
It seemed, at first, to consist mainly of debts. These were paid by the sale of the deforested lands and of certain detached woodlands. By the same method, much as he disliked it, he made a modest provision of money for continuing his education and beginning his travels. He knew that he had much to learn of the world, and he was especially desirous of pursuing his favorite study of botany, which a wise old priest at Louvain had taught him to love. So he engaged an intelligent and faithful forester to care for the trees and the estate, closed the house, and set forth on his journeys.
They led him far and wide. In the course of them no doubt he studied other things than botany. It may be that he sowed some of the wild oats with which youth is endowed; but not in the gardens of others; nor with that cold self-indulgence which transforms passionate impulse into sensual habit. He had a permanent and regulative devotion to botanical research; and that is a study which seems to promote modesty, tranquillity, and steadiness of mind in its devotees, of whom the great Linnaeus is the shining exemplar. Young Albert d'Azan sat at the feet of the best masters in Europe and America. He crossed the western continent to observe the oldest of living things, the giant Sequoias of California. He went to Australasia and the Dutch East Indies and South America in search of new ferns and orchids. He investigated the effect of ocean currents and of tribal migrations in the distribution of trees. His botanical monographs brought him renown among those who know, and he was elected a corresponding member of many scientific societies. After twenty years of voyaging he returned to port at Azan, richly laden with observation and learning, and settled down among his trees to pursue his studies and write his books.
The estate, under the forester's care, had improved a little and promised a modest income. The house, though somewhat dilapidated, was easily made livable. But the one thing that was full of glory and splendor, triumphantly prosperous, was the great avenue of beeches. Their long, low aisle of broad arches was complete. They shimmered with a pearly mist of buds in early spring and later with luminous green of tender leafage. In mid-summer they formed a wide, still stream of dark, unruffled verdure; in autumn they were transmuted through glowing yellow into russet gold; in winter their massy trunks were pillars of gray marble and the fan-tracery of their rounded branches was delicately etched against the sky.
"Look at them," the baron would say to the guests whom the fame of his learning and the charm of his wide-ranging conversation often brought to his house. "Those beeches were planted by my grandfather after the battle of Wagram, when Napoleon whipped the Austrians. After that came the Beresina and Leipsic and Waterloo and how many battles and wars of furious, perishable men. Yet the trees live on peaceably, they unfold their strength in beauty, they have not yet reached the summit of their grandeur. We are all _parvenus_ beside them."
"If you had to choose," asked the great sculptor Constantin Meunier one day, "would you have your house or one of these trees struck by lightning?"
"The house," answered the botanist promptly, "for I could rebuild it in a year; but to restore the tree would take three-quarters of a century."
"Also," said the sculptor, with a smile, "you might change the style of your house with advantage, but the style of these trees you could never improve."
"But tell me," he continued, "is it true, as they say, that lightning never strikes a beech?"
"It is not entirely true," replied the botanist, smiling in his turn, "yet, like many ancient beliefs, it has some truth in it. There is something in the texture of the beech that seems to resist electricity better than other trees. It may be the fatness of the wood. Whatever it is, I am glad of it, for it gives my trees a better chance."
"Don't be too secure," said the sculptor, shaking his head. "There are other tempests besides those in the clouds. When the next war comes in western Europe Belgium will be the battle-field. Beech-wood is very good to burn."
"God forbid," said the baron devoutly. "We have had peace for a quarter of a century. Why should it not last?"
"Ask the wise men of the East," replied the sculptor grimly.
When he was a little past fifty the baron married, with steadfast choice and deep affection, the orphan daughter of a noble family of Hainault. She was about half his age; of a tranquil, cheerful temper and a charm that depended less on feature than on expression; a lover of music, books, and a quiet life. She brought him a small dowry by which the chateau was restored to comfort, and bore him two children, a boy and a girl, by whom it was enlivened with natural gayety. The next twenty years were the happiest that Albert d'Azan and his wife ever saw. The grand avenue of beeches became to them the unconscious symbol of something settled and serene, august, protective, sacred.
On a brilliant morning of early April, 1914, they had stepped out together to drink the air. The beeches were in misty, silver bloom above them. All around was peace and gladness.
"I want to tell you a dream I had last night," he said, "a strange dream about our beeches."
"If it was sad," she answered, "do not let the shadow of it fall on the morning."
"But it was not sad. It seemed rather to bring light and comfort. I dreamed that I was dead and you had buried me at the foot of the largest of the trees."
"Do you call that not sad?" she interrupted reproachfully.
"It did not seem so. Wait a moment and you shall hear the way of it. At first I felt only a deep quietness and repose, like one who has been in pain and is very tired and lies down in the shade to sleep. Then I was waking again and something was drawing me gently upward. I cannot exactly explain it, but it was as if I were passing through the roots and the trunk and the boughs of the beech-tree toward the upper air. There I saw the light again and heard the birds singing and the wind rustling among the leaves. How I saw and heard I cannot tell you, for there was no remembrance of a body in my dream. Then suddenly my soul--I suppose it was that--stood before God and He was asking me: 'How did you come hither?' I answered, 'By Christ's way, by the way of a tree.' And He said it was well, and that my work in heaven should be the care of the trees growing by the river of life, and that sometimes I could go back to visit my trees on earth, if I wished. That made me very glad, for I knew that so I should see you and our children under the beeches. And while I was wondering whether you would ever know that I was there, the dream dissolved, and I saw the morning light on the tree-tops. What do you think of my dream? Childish, wasn't it?"
She thought a little before she answered.
"It was natural enough, though vague. Of course we could not be buried at the foot of the beech-tree unless Cardinal Mercier would permit a plot of ground to be consecrated there. But come, it is time to go in to breakfast."
She seemed to dismiss the matter from her mind. Yet, as women so often do, she kept all these sayings and pondered them in her heart.
The promise of spring passed into the sultry heat of summer. The storm-cloud of the twentieth century blackened over Europe. The wise men of Berlin made mad by pride, devoted the world not to the Prince of Peace but to the lords of war. In the first week of August the fury of the German invasion broke on Belgium. No one had dared to dream the terrors of that tempest. It was like a return of the Dark Ages. Every home trembled. The pillars of the tranquil house of Azan were shaken.
The daughter was away at school in England, and that was an unmixed blessing. The son was a lieutenant in the Belgian army; and that was right and glorious, but it was also a dreadful anxiety. The father and mother were divided in mind, Whether to stay or take flight with their friends. At last the father decided the hard question.
"It is our duty to stay. We cannot fight for our country, but we can suffer with her. Our daughter is in safety; our son's danger we cannot and would not prevent. How could we really live away from here, our home, our trees? I went to consult the cardinal. He stays, and he advises us to do so. He says that will be the best way to show our devotion. As Christians we must endure the evil that we cannot prevent; but as Belgians our hearts will never consent to it."
That was their attitude as the tide of blood and tears drew nearer to them, surrounded them, swept beyond them, engulfed the whole land. The brutal massacres at Andenne and Dinant were so near that the news arrived before the spilt blood was dry. The exceeding great and bitter cry of anguish came to them from a score of neighboring villages, from a hundred lonely farmhouses. The old botanist withered and faded daily; his wife grew pale and gray. Yet they walked their _via crucis_ together, and kept their chosen course.
They fed the hungry and clothed the naked, helped the fugitives and consoled the broken-hearted. They counselled their poor neighbors to good order, and dissuaded the ignorant from the folly and peril of violence. Toward the invading soldiery their conduct was beyond reproach. With no false professions of friendship, they fulfilled the hard services which were required of them. Their servants had been helped away at the beginning of the trouble--all except the old forester and his wife, who refused to leave. With their aid the house was kept open and many of the conquerors lodged there and in the outbuildings. So good were the quarters that a departing Saxon chalked on the gate-post the dubious inscription: _"Gute Leute-nicht auspliin-dern."_ Thus the captives at the Chateau d'Azan had a good name even among their enemies. The baron received a military pass which enabled him to move quite freely about the district on his errands of necessity and mercy, and the chateau became a favorite billet for high-born officers.
In the second year of the war an evil chance brought two uninvited guests of very high standing indeed--that is to say in the social ring of Potsdam. Their names are well known. Let us call them Prince Barenberg and Count Ludra. The first was a major, the second a captain. Their value as warriors in the field had not proved equal to their prominence as noblemen, so they were given duty in the rear.
They were vicious coxcombs of the first order. Their uniforms incased them tightly. Like wasps they bent only at the waist. Their flat-topped caps were worn with an aggressive slant, their swords jingled menacingly, their hay-colored mustaches spoke arrogance in every upturned hair. When they bowed it was a mockery; when they smiled it was a sneer. For the comfortable quarters of the Chateau d'Azan they had a gross appreciation, for the enforced hospitality of its owners an insolent condescension. They took it as their due, and resented the silent protest underneath it.
"Excellent wine, Herr Baron," said the prince, who, like his comrade, drank profusely of the best in the cellar. "Your Rudesheimer Berg '94 is _kolossal._ Very friendly of you to save it for us. We Germans know good wine. What?"
"You have that reputation," answered the baron.
"And say," added the count, "let us have a couple of bottles more, dear landlord. You can put it in the bill."
"I shall do so," said the baron gravely. "It shall be put in the bill with other things."
"But why," drawled the prince, "does _la Baronne_ never favor us with her company? Still very attractive--musical probably--here is a piano--want good German music--console homesickness."
"Madame is indisposed," answered the baron quietly, "but you may be sure she regrets your absence from home."
The officers looked at each other with half-tipsy, half-angry eyes. They suspected a jest at their expense, but could not quite catch it.
"Impudence," muttered the count, who was the sharper of the two when sober.
"No," said the prince, "it is only stupidity. These Walloons have no wit."
"Come," he added, turning to the baron, "we sing you a good song of fatherland--show how _gemuthlich_ we Germans are. You Belgians have no word for that. What?"
He sat down to the piano and pounded out _"Deutschland ueber Alles,"_ singing the air in a raucous voice, while Ludra added a rumbling bass.
"What do you think of that? All Germans can sing. _Gemuthlich._ What?"
"You are right," said the baron, with downcast eyes. "We Belgians have no word for that. It is inexpressible--except in German. I bid you good night."
For nearly a fortnight this condition of affairs continued. The baron endured it as best he could, obeying scrupulously the military regulations which necessity laid upon him, and taking his revenge only in long thoughts and words of polite sarcasm which he knew would not be understood. The baroness worked hard at the housekeeping, often cooking and cleaning with her own hands, and rejoicing secretly with her husband over the rare news that came from their daughter in England, from their boy at the front in West Flanders. Sometimes, when the coast was clear, husband and wife walked together under the beech-trees and talked in low tones of the time when the ravenous beast should no more go up on the land.
The two noble officers performed their routine duties, found such amusement as they could in neighboring villages and towns, drank deep at night, and taxed their ingenuity to invent small ways of annoying their hosts, for whom they felt the contemptuous dislike of the injurer for the injured. They were careful, however, to keep their malice within certain bounds, for they knew that the baron was in favor with the commandant of the district.
One morning the baron and his wife, looking from their window in a wing of the house, saw with surprise and horror a score or more of German soldiers assembled beside the beech-avenue, with axes and saws, preparing to begin work.
"What are they going to do there?" cried he in dismay, and hurried down to the dining-room, where the officers sat at breakfast, giving orders to an attentive corporal.
"A thousand pardons, Highness," interrupted the baron; "forgive my haste. But surely you are not going to cut down my avenue of beeches?"
"Why not?" said the prince, swinging around in his chair. "They are good wood."
"But, sir," stammered the baron, trembling with excitement, "those trees--they are an ancient heritage of the house--planted by my grandfather a century ago--an old possession--spare them for their age."
"You exaggerate," sneered the prince. "They are not old. I have on my hunting estate in Thuringia oaks five hundred years old. These trees of yours are mere upstarts. Why shouldn't they be cut? What?"
"But they are very dear to us," pleaded the baron earnestly. "We all love them, my wife and children and I. To us they are sacred. It would be harsh to take them from us."
"Baron," said the prince, with suave malice, "you miss the point. We Germans are never harsh. But we are practical. My soldiers need exercise. The camps need wood. Do you see? What?"
"Certainly," answered the poor baron, humbling himself in his devotion to his trees. "Your Highness makes the point perfectly clear--the need of exercise and wood. But there is plenty of good timber in the forest and the park--much easier to cut. Cannot your men get their wood and their exercise there, and spare my dearest trees?"
Ludra laughed unpleasantly.
"You do not yet understand us, dear landlord. We Germans are a hard-working people, not like the lazy Belgians. The harder the work the better we like it. The soldiers will have a fine time chopping down your tough beeches."
The slender old man drew himself up, his eyes flashed, he was driven to bay.
"You shall not do this," he cried. "It is an outrage, a sacrilege. I shall appeal to the commandant. He will protect my rights."
The officers looked at each other. Deaf to pity, they had keen ears for danger. A reproof, perhaps a punishment from their superior would be most unpleasant. They hesitated to face it. But they were too obstinate to give up their malicious design altogether with a good grace.
"Military necessity," growled the prince, "knows no private rights. I advise you, baron, not to appeal to the commandant. It will be useless, perhaps harmful."
"Here, you," he said gruffly, turning to the corporal, "carry out my orders. Cut the two marked beeches by the gate. Then take your men into the park and cut the biggest trees there. Report for further orders to-morrow morning."
The wooden-faced giant saluted, swung on his heels, and marched stiffly out. The baron followed him quickly.
He knew that entreaties would be wasted on the corporal. How to get to the commandant, that was the question? He would not be allowed to use the telephone which was in the dining-room, nor the automobile which belonged to the officers; nor one of their horses which were in his stable. The only other beast left there was a small and very antique donkey which the children used to drive. In a dilapidated go-cart, drawn by this pattering nag, the baron made such haste as he could along twelve miles of stony road to the district headquarters. There he told his story simply to the commandant and begged protection for his beloved trees.
The old general was of a different type from the fire-eating dandies who played the master at Azan. He listened courteously and gravely. There was a picture in his mind of the old timbered house in the Hohe Venn, where he had spent four years in retirement before the war called him back to the colors. He thought of the tall lindens and the spreading chestnuts around it and imagined how he should feel if he saw them falling under the axe.
Then he said to his petitioner:
"You have acted quite correctly, _Monsieur le Baron,_ in bringing this matter quietly to my attention. There is no military necessity for the destruction of your fine trees. I shall put a stop to it at once."
He called his aide-de-camp and gave some instructions in a low tone of voice. When the aide came back from the telephone and reported, the general frowned.
"It is unheard of," he muttered, half to himself, "the way those titled young fools go beyond their orders."
Then he turned to his visitor.
"I am very sorry, _Monsieur le Baron,_ but two of your beeches have already fallen. It cannot be helped now. But there shall be no more of it, I promise you. Those young officers are--they are--let us call them overzealous. I will transfer them to another post to-morrow. The German command appreciates the correct conduct of you and _Madame la Baronne._ Is there anything more that I can do for you?"
"I thank your Excellency sincerely," replied the baron. Then he hesitated a moment, as if to weigh his words. "No, _Herr General,_ I believe there is nothing more--in which you can help me."
The old soldier's eyelids flickered for an instant. "Then I bid you a very good day," he said, bowing.
The baron hurried home, to share the big good news with his wife. The little bad news she knew already. Together they grieved over the two fallen trees and rejoiced under the golden shadow of their untouched companions. The officers had called for wine, and more wine, and yet more wine, and were drinking deep and singing loud in the dining-room.
In the morning came an orderly with a despatch from headquarters, ordering the prince and the count to duty in a dirty village of the coal region. Their baggage was packed into the automobile, and they mounted their horses and went away in a rage.
"You will be sorry for this, dumbhead," growled the prince, scowling fiercely. "Yes," added Ludra, with a hateful grin, "we shall meet again, dear landlord, and you will be sorry."
Their host bowed and said nothing.
Some weeks later the princely automobile came to the door of the chateau. The forester brought up word that the Prince Barenberg and the Count Ludra were below with a message from headquarters; the commandant wished the baron to come there immediately; the automobile was sent to bring him. He made ready to go. His wife and his servant tried hard to dissuade him: it was late, almost dark, and very cold--not likely the commandant had sent for him--it might be all a trick of those officers--they were hateful men--they would play some cruel prank for revenge. But the old man was obstinate in his resolve; he must do what was required of him, he must not even run the risk of slighting the commandant's wishes; after all, no great harm could come to him.
When he reached the steps he saw the count in the front seat, beside the chauffeur, grinning; and the prince's harsh voice, made soft as possible, called from the shadowy interior of the car:
"Come in, baron. The general has sent for you in a hurry. We will take you like lightning. How fine your beeches look against the sky. What?"
The old man stepped into the dusky car. It rolled down the long aisle, between the smooth gray columns, beneath the fan-tracery of the low arches, out on to the stony highway. Thus the tree-lover was taken from his sanctuary.
He did not return the next day, nor the day after. His wife, tortured by anxiety, went to the district headquarters. The commandant was away. The aide could not enlighten her. There had been no message sent to the baron--that was certain. Major Barenberg and Captain Ludra had been transferred to another command. Unfortunately, nothing could be done except to report the case.
The brave woman was not broken by her anguish, but raised to the height of heroic devotion. She dedicated herself to the search for her husband. The faithful forester, convinced that his master had been killed, was like a slow, sure bloodhound on the track of the murderers. He got a trace of them in a neighboring village, where their car had been seen to pass at dusk on the fatal day. The officers were in it, but not the baron. The forester got a stronger scent of them in a wine-house, where their chauffeur had babbled mysteriously on the following day. The old woodsman followed the trail with inexhaustible patience.
"I shall bring the master's body home," he said to his mistress, "and God will use me to avenge his murder."
A few weeks later he found his master's corpse hidden in a hollow on the edge of the forest, half-covered with broken branches, rotting leaves, and melting snow. There were three bullets in the body. They had been fired at close range.
The widow's heart, passing from the torture of uncertainty to the calm of settled grief, had still a sacred duty to live for. She had not forgotten her husband's dream. She went to the cardinal-archbishop to beg the consecration of a little burial-plot at the foot of the greatest of the beeches of Azan. That wise and brave prince of the church consented with words of tender consolation, and promised his aid in the pursuit of the criminals.
"Eminence," she said, weeping, "you are very good to me. God will reward you. He is just. He will repay. But my heart's desire is to follow my husband's dream."
So the body of the old botanist was brought back to the shadow of the great beech-trees, and was buried there, like the bones of a martyr, within the sanctuary.
Is this the end of the story?
Who can say?
It is written also, among the records of Belgium, that the faithful forester disappeared mysteriously a few weeks later. His body was found in the forest and laid near his master.
Another record tells of the trial of Prince Barenberg and Count Ludra before a court martial, The count was sentenced to ten years of labor _on his own estate._ The death-sentence of the prince was commuted to imprisonment _in some unnamed place._ So far the story of German justice.
But of the other kind of justice--the poetic, the Divine--the record is not yet complete.
I know only that there is a fatherless girl working and praying in a hospital in England, and a fatherless boy fighting and praying in the muddy trenches near Ypres, and a lonely woman walking and praying under certain great beech-trees at the Chateau d'Azan. The burden of their prayer is the same. Night and day it rises to Him who will judge the world in righteousness and before whose eyes the wicked shall not stand.