I TOOK one look about me.
The building was picturesque; the trees made it more so. The antique and sequestered character of the scene, contrasted strangely with the glare and bustle of the Parisian life, to which my eye and ear had become accustomed.
Then I examined the gorgeous old sign for a minute or two. Next I surveyed the exterior of the house more carefully. It was large and solid, and squared more with my ideas of an ancient English hostelrie, such as the Canterbury pilgrims might have put up at, than a French house of entertainment. Except, indeed, for a round turret, that rose at the left flank of the house, and terminated in the extinguisher-shaped roof that suggests a French château.
I entered and announced myself as Monsieur Beckett, for whom a room had been taken. I was received with all the consideration due to an English milord, with, of course, an unfathomable purse.
My host conducted me to my apartment. It was a large room, a little sombre, panelled with dark wainscoting, and furnished in a stately and sombre style, long out of date. There was a wide hearth, and a heavy mantelpiece, carved with shields, in which I might, had I been curious enough, have discovered a correspondence with the heraldry on the outer walls. There was something interesting, melancholy, and even depressing in all this. I went to the stone-shafted window, and looked out upon a small park, with a thick wood, forming the background of a château, which presented a cluster of such conical-topped turrets as I have just now mentioned.
The wood and château were melancholy objects. They showed signs of neglect, and almost of decay; and the gloom of fallen grandeur, and a certain air of desertion hung oppressively over the scene.
I asked my host the name of the château.
"That, Monsieur, is the Château de la Carque," he answered.
"It is a pity it is so neglected," I observed.
"I should say, perhaps, a pity that its proprietor is not more wealthy?"
"Perhaps so, Monsieur."
"Perhaps?"—I repeated, and looked at him.
"Then I suppose he is not very popular."
"Neither one thing nor the other. Monsieur," he answered; 'I meant only that we could not tell what use he might make of riches."
"And who is he?" I inquired.
"The Count de St. Alyre."
"Oh! The Count! You are quite sure?"
I asked, very eagerly. It was now the innkeeper's turn to look at me.
"Quite sure, Monsieur, the Count de St. Alyre."
"Do you see much of him in this part of the world?"
"Not a great deal, Monsieur; he is often absent for a considerable time."
"And is he poor?" I inquired.
"I pay rent to him for this house. It is not much; but I find he cannot wait long for it," he replied, smiling satirically.
"From what I have heard, however, I should think he cannot be very poor?" I continued
"They say, Monsieur, he plays. I know not. He certainly is not rich. About seven months ago, a relation of his died in a distant place. His body was sent to the Count's house here, and by him buried in Père la Chaise, as the poor gentleman had desired. The Count was in profound affliction; although he got a handsome legacy, they say, by that death. But money never seems to do him good for any time."
"He is old, I believe?"
"Old? we call him the 'Wandering Jew,' except, indeed, that he has not always the five sous in his pocket. Yet, Monsieur, his courage does not fail him. He has taken a young and handsome wife."
"And, she?" I urged—
"Is the Countess de St. Alyre."
"Yes; but I fancy we may say something more? She has attributes?"
"Three, Monsieur, three, at least most amiable."
"Ah! And what are they?"
"Youth, beauty, and—diamonds."
I laughed. The sly old gentleman was foiling my curiosity.
"I see, my friend," said I, "you are reluctant—"
"To quarrel with the Count," he concluded. "True. You see, Monsieur, he could vex me in two or three ways; so could I him. But, on the whole, it is better each to mind his business, and to maintain peaceful relations; you understand."
It was, therefore, no use trying, at least for the present. Perhaps he had nothing to relate. Should I think differently, by-and-by,
I could try the effect of a few Napoleons. Possibly he meant to extract them.
The host of the Dragon Volant was an elderly man, thin, bronzed, intelligent, and with an air of decision, perfectly military. I learned afterwards that he had served under Napoleon in his early Italian campaigns.
"One question, I think you may answer," I said, "without risking a quarrel. Is the Count at home?"
"He has many homes, I conjecture," said the host evasively. "But—but I think I may say, Monsieur, that he is, I believe, at present staying at the Château de la Carque."
I looked out of the window, more interested than ever, across the undulating grounds to the château, with its gloomy background of foliage.
"I saw him to-day, in his carriage at Versailles," I said.
"Then his carriage and horses and servants are at the château?"
"The carriage he puts up here, Monsieur, and the servants are hired for the occasion. There is but one who sleeps at the château. Such a life must be terrifying for Madame the Countess," he replied.
"The old screw!" I thought. "By this torture, he hopes to extract her diamonds. What a life! What fiends to contend with—jealousy and extortion!"
The knight having made this speech to himself, cast his eyes once more upon the enchanter's castle, and heaved a gentle sigh—a sigh of longing, of resolution, and of love.
What a fool I was! and yet, in the sight of angels, are we any wiser as we grow older? It seems to me, only, that our illusions change as we go on; but, still, we are madmen all the same.
"Well, St. Clair," said I, as my servant entered, and began to arrange my things. "You have got a bed?"
"In the cock-loft, Monsieur, among the spiders, and, par ma foi! the cats and the owls. But we agree very well. Vive la bagatelle!"
"I had no idea it was so full."
"Chiefly the servants, Monsieur, of those persons who were fortunate enough to get apartments at Versailles."
"And what do you think of the Dragon Volant?"
"The Dragon Volant! Monsieur; the old fiery dragon! The devil himself, if all is true! On the faith of a Christian, Monsieur, they say that diabolical miracles have taken place in this house."
"What do you mean? Revenants?"
"Not at all, sir; I wish it was no worse. Revenants? No! People who have never returned—who vanished, before the eyes of half-a-dozen men, all looking at them."
"What do you mean, St. Clair? Let us hear the story, or miracle, or whatever it is."
"It is only this, Monsieur, that an ex-master-of-the-horse of the late king, who lost his head—Monsieur will have the goodness to recollect, in the revolution—being permitted by the Emperor to return to France, lived here in this hotel, for a month, and at the end of that time vanished, visibly, as I told you, before the faces of half-a-dozen credible witnesses! The other was a Russian nobleman, six feet high and upwards, who, standing in the centre of the room, downstairs, describing to seven gentlemen of unquestionable veracity, the last moments of Peter the Great, and having a glass of eau de vie in his left hand, and his tasse de café nearly finished, in his right, in like manner vanished. His boots were found on the floor where he had been standing; and the gentleman at his right, found, to his astonishment, his cup of coffee in his fingers, and the gentleman at his left, his glass of eau de vie———"
"Which he swallowed in his confusion," I suggested.
"Which was preserved for three years among the curious articles of this house, and was broken by the curé while conversing with Mademoiselle Fidone in the housekeeper's room; but of the Russian nobleman himself, nothing more was ever seen or heard! Parbleu! when we go out of the Dragon Volant, I hope it may be by the door. I heard all this, Monsieur, from the postillion who drove us."
"Then it must be true!" said I, jocularly: but I was beginning to feel the gloom of the view, and of the chamber in which I stood; there had stolen over me, I know not how, a presentiment of evil; and my joke was with an effort, and my spirit flagged.