THE WHITE ROSE
I was too quick for Colonel Gaillarde. As he raised his sword, reckless of all consequences but my condign punishment and quite resolved to cleave me to the teeth, I struck him across the side of his head with my heavy stick, and while he staggered back I struck him another blow, nearly in the same place, that felled him to the floor, where he lay as if dead.
I did not care one of his own regimental buttons, whether he was dead or not; I was, at that moment, carried away by such a tumult of delightful and diabolical emotions!
I broke his sword under my foot, and flung the pieces across the street. The old Count de St. Alyre skipped nimbly without looking to the right or left, or thanking anybody, over the floor, out of the door, down the steps, and into his carriage. Instantly I was at the side of the beautiful Countess, thus left to shift for herself; I offered her my arm, which she took, and I led her to the carriage. She entered, and I shut the door. All this without a word.
I was about to ask if there were any commands with which she would honor me—my hand was laid upon the lower edge of the window, which was open.
The lady's hand was laid upon mine timidly and excitedly. Her lips almost touched my cheek as she whispered hurriedly:
"I may never see you more, and, oh! that I could forget you. Go—farewell—for God's sake, go!"
I pressed her hand for a moment. She withdrew it, but tremblingly pressed into mine the rose which she had held in her fingers during the agitating scene she had just passed through.
All this took place while the Count was commanding, entreating, cursing his servants, tipsy, and out of the way during the crisis, my conscience afterwards insinuated, by my clever contrivance. They now mounted to their places with the agility of alarm. The postilions' whips cracked, the horses scrambled into a trot, and away rolled the carriage, with its precious freightage, along the quaint main street, in the moonlight, toward Paris.
I stood on the pavement till it was quite lost to eye and ear in the distance.
With a deep sigh, I then turned, my white rose folded in my handkerchief—the little parting gage—the
which no mortal eye but hers and mine had seen conveyed to me.
The care of the host of the Belle Étoile, and his assistants, had raised the wounded hero of a hundred fights partly against the wall, and propped him at each side with portmanteaus and pillows, and poured a glass of brandy, which was duly placed to his account, into his big mouth, where, for the first time, such a godsend remained unswallowed.
A bald-headed little military surgeon of sixty, with spectacles, who had cut off eighty-seven legs and arms to his own share, after the battle of Eylau, having retired with his sword and his saw, his laurels and his sticking-plaster to this, his native town, was called in, and rather thought the gallant Colonel's skull was fractured; at all events, there was concussion of the seat of thought, and quite enough work for his remarkable self-healing powers to occupy him for a fortnight.
I began to grow a little uneasy. A disagreeable surprise, if my excursion, in which I was to break banks and hearts, and, as you see, heads, should end upon the gallows or the guillotine. I was not clear, in those times of political oscillation, which was the established apparatus.
The Colonel was conveyed, snorting apoplectically, to his room.
I saw my host in the apartment in which we had supped. Wherever you employ a force of any sort, to carry a point of real importance, reject all nice calculations of economy. Better to be a thousand per cent, over the mark, than the smallest fraction of a unit under it. I instinctively felt this.
I ordered a bottle of my landlord's very best wine; made him partake with me, in the proportion of two glasses to one; and then told him that he must not decline a trifling souvenir from a guest who had been so charmed with all he had seen of the renowned Belle Étoile. Thus saying, I placed five-and-thirty Napoleons in his hand: at touch of which his countenance, by no means encouraging before, grew sunny, his manners thawed, and it was plain, as he dropped the coins hastily into his pocket, that benevolent relations had been established between us.
I immediately placed the Colonel's broken head upon the tapis. We both agreed that if I had not given him that rather smart tap of my walking-cane, he would have beheaded half the inmates of the Belle Étoile. There was not a waiter in the house who would not verify that statement on oath.
The reader may suppose that I had other motives, beside the desire to escape the tedious inquisition of the law, for desiring to recommence my journey to Paris with the least possible delay. Judge what was my horror then to learn that, for love or money, horses were nowhere to be had that night. The last pair in the town had been obtained from the Écu de France by a gentleman who dined and supped at the Belle Étoile, and was obliged to proceed to Paris that night.
Who was the gentleman? Had he actually gone? Could he possibly be induced to wait till morning?
The gentleman was now upstairs getting his things together, and his name was Monsieur Droqville.
I ran upstairs. I found my servant St. Clair in my room. At sight of him, for a moment, my thoughts were turned into a different channel.
"Well, St. Clair, tell me this moment who the lady is?" I demanded.
"The lady is the daughter or wife, it matters not which, of the Count de St. Alyre—the old gentleman who was so near being sliced like a cucumber tonight, I am informed, by the sword of the general whom Monsieur, by a turn of fortune, has put to bed of an apoplexy."
"Hold your tongue, fool! The man's beastly drunk—he's sulking—he could talk if he liked—who cares? Pack up my things. Which are Monsieur Droqville's apartments?"
He knew, of course; he always knew everything.
Half an hour later Monsieur Droqville and I were traveling towards Paris in my carriage and with his horses. I ventured to ask the Marquis d'Harmonville, in a little while, whether the lady, who accompanied the Count, was certainly the Countess. "Has he not a daughter?"
"Yes; I believe a very beautiful and charming young lady—I cannot say—it may have been she, his daughter by an earlier marriage. I saw only the Count himself today."
The Marquis was growing a little sleepy, and, in a little while, he actually fell asleep in his corner. I dozed and nodded; but the Marquis slept like a top. He awoke only for a minute or two at the next posting-house where he had fortunately secured horses by sending on his man, he told me. "You will excuse my being so dull a companion," he said, "but till tonight I have had but two hours' sleep, for more than sixty hours. I shall have a cup of coffee here; I have had my nap. Permit me to recommend you to do likewise. Their coffee is really excellent." He ordered two cups of café noir, and waited, with his head from the window. "We will keep the cups," he said, as he received them from the waiter, "and the tray. Thank you."
There was a little delay as he paid for these things; and then he took in the little tray, and handed me a cup of coffee.
I declined the tray; so he placed it on his own knees, to act as a miniature table.
"I can't endure being waited for and hurried," he said, "I like to sip my coffee at leisure."
I agreed. It really was the very perfection of coffee.
"I, like Monsieur le Marquis, have slept very little for the last two or three nights; and find it difficult to keep awake. This coffee will do wonders for me; it refreshes one so."
Before we had half done, the carriage was again in motion.
For a time our coffee made us chatty, and our conversation was animated.
The Marquis was extremely good-natured, as well as clever, and gave me a brilliant and amusing account of Parisian life, schemes, and dangers, all put so as to furnish me with practical warnings of the most valuable kind.
In spite of the amusing and curious stories which the Marquis related with so much point and color, I felt myself again becoming gradually drowsy and dreamy.
Perceiving this, no doubt, the Marquis good-naturedly suffered our conversation to subside into silence. The window next him was open. He threw his cup out of it; and did the same kind office for mine, and finally the little tray flew after, and I heard it clank on the road; a valuable waif, no doubt, for some early wayfarer in wooden shoes.
I leaned back in my corner; I had my beloved souvenir—my white rose—close to my heart, folded, now, in white paper. It inspired all manner of romantic dreams. I began to grow more and more sleepy. But actual slumber did not come. I was still viewing, with my half-closed eyes, from my corner, diagonally, the interior of the carriage.
I wished for sleep; but the barrier between waking and sleeping seemed absolutely insurmountable; and, instead, I entered into a state of novel and indescribable indolence.
The Marquis lifted his dispatch-box from the floor, placed it on his knees, unlocked it, and took out what proved to be a lamp, which he hung with two hooks, attached to it, to the window opposite to him. He lighted it with a match, put on his spectacles, and taking out a bundle of letters began to read them carefully.
We were making way very slowly. My impatience had hitherto employed four horses from stage to stage. We were in this emergency, only too happy to have secured two. But the difference in pace was depressing.
I grew tired of the monotony of seeing the spectacled Marquis reading, folding, and docketing, letter after letter. I wished to shut out the image which wearied me, but something prevented my being able to shut my eyes. I tried again and again; but, positively, I had lost the power of closing them.
I would have rubbed my eyes, but I could not stir my hand, my will no longer acted on my body—I found that I could not move one joint, or muscle, no more than I could, by an effort of my will, have turned the carriage about.
Up to this I had experienced no sense of horror. Whatever it was, simple night-mare was not the cause. I was awfully frightened! Was I in a fit?
It was horrible to see my good-natured companion pursue his occupation so serenely, when he might have dissipated my horrors by a single shake.
I made a stupendous exertion to call out, but in vain; I repeated the effort again and again, with no result.
My companion now tied up his letters, and looked out of the window, humming an air from an opera. He drew back his head, and said, turning to me:
"Yes, I see the lights; we shall be there in two or three minutes."
He looked more closely at me, and with a kind smile, and a little shrug, he said, "Poor child! how fatigued he must have been—how profoundly he sleeps! when the carriage stops he will waken."
He then replaced his letters in the box-box, locked it, put his spectacles in his pocket, and again looked out of the window.
We had entered a little town. I suppose it was past two o'clock by this time. The carriage drew up, I saw an inn-door open, and a light issuing from it.
"Here we are!" said my companion, turning gaily to me. But I did not awake.
"Yes, how tired he must have been!" he exclaimed, after he had waited for an answer. My servant was at the carriage door, and opened it.
"Your master sleeps soundly, he is so fatigued! It would be cruel to disturb him. You and I will go in, while they change the horses, and take some refreshment, and choose something that Monsieur Beckett will like to take in the carriage, for when he awakes by-and-by, he will, I am sure, be hungry."
He trimmed his lamp, poured in some oil; and taking care not to disturb me, with another kind smile and another word of caution to my servant he got out, and I heard him talking to St. Clair, as they entered the inn-door, and I was left in my corner, in the carriage, in the same state.