“You are very kind, madam,” replied I, “but my resolution is formed, and I will work for my daily bread in any way that I can, rather than return. Put me but in the way of doing that, and I will for ever bless you.”
“You shall never work for your bread while I live, Valerie, but if I die, you will have to do something for your own support, and recollect how friendless you will be, and so young.”
“Can I be more friendless than I am at home, madame?” said I, shaking my head, mournfully.
“Your father deserves punishment for his want of moral courage as well as your mother,” replied Madame d’Albret. “You had better go to bed now, and to-morrow give me your decision.”
“To-morrow will make no change, madame,” answered I, “but I fear that there is no chance of my escape. To-morrow my father will arrive for me as usual, and—but I have said it. You may preserve my life, madame, but how I know not,” and I threw myself down on the bed in despair.
About an hour afterwards Madame d’Albret, who had left me on the bed while she went down to her sister, came up again, and spoke to me, but from weakness occasioned by the loss of blood and from excitement, I talked for many minutes in the most incoherent manner, and Madame d’Albret was seriously alarmed. In the meantime the colonel had come home, and his wife explained what had happened. She led him up to my room just at the time that I was raving. He took the candle, and looked at my swelled features, and said, “I should not have recognised the poor girl. Mort de ma vie! but this is infamous, and Monsieur de Chatenoeuf is a contemptible coward. I will see him to-morrow morning.”
The colonel and his wife then left the room. By this time I had recovered from my paroxysm. Madame d’Albret came to me, and putting her face close to mine, said, “Valerie.”
“Yes, madame,” replied I.
“Are you more composed now? Do you think that you could listen to me?”
“Yes, madame, and thankfully,” replied I.
“Well, then, my plan is this. I am sure that the colonel will take you home to-morrow. Let him do so; in the morning I will tell you how to behave. To-morrow night you shall escape, and I will be with a fiacre at the corner of the street ready to receive you. I will take you to my house, and no one, not even my sister, shall know that you are with me. They will believe that you have thrown yourself into the Seine, and as the regiment is ordered to Lyons, and will leave in ten days or a fortnight, there will be no chance, if you are concealed till their departure, of their knowing that you are alive.”
“Thank you, thank you, madame, you know not how happy you have made me,” replied I, pressing my hand to my heart, which throbbed painfully with joy. “God bless you, Madame d’Albret. Oh, how I shall pray for you, kind Madame d’Albret!”
Madame d’Albret shed tears over me after I had done speaking, and then wishing me good-night, told me that she would see me in the morning, and let me know what was going on, and then give me further directions for my conduct. She then left me, and I tried to go to sleep, but I was in too much pain. Once I did slumber, and dreamt that my mother was beating me again. I screamed with the pain that the blows gave me and awoke. I slept no more that night. At daylight I rose, and, as may be supposed, the first thing that I did was to look into the glass. I was terrified; my face was swelled so that my features were hardly distinguishable; one eye was closed up, and the blood had oozed out through the handkerchief which had been tied round my head by the surgeon. I was, indeed, an object. The servant brought me up some coffee, which I drank, and then remained till the colonel’s wife came up to me.
It was the first and only time that I ever beheld that good woman angry. She called from the top of the stairs for her husband to come up; he did so, looked at me, said nothing, but went down again. About half-an-hour afterwards Madame d’Albret and the surgeon came up together. The latter was interrogated by her as to the effects of the injuries I had received, and after examination, he replied, that although it would take some days for the inflammation and marks of the blows to go away, yet he did not consider that eventually I should be in any way disfigured. This gave me great pleasure, as I suspect it would have done any other pretty girl in my situation. Madame d’Albret waited till the surgeon was gone, and then gave me some further instructions, which I obeyed to the letter. She also brought me a black veil in case I had not one of my own. She then left me, saying, that the colonel had sent for my father, and that she wished to be present at the interview.
My father came, and the colonel, after stating the treatment which I had received, loaded him with reproaches; told him his conduct was that of a coward to allow his wife to be guilty of such cruelty towards his child. Then he sent Madame d’Albret to bring me down; when I entered, my father started back with surprise; he had answered the colonel haughtily, but when he beheld the condition I was in, he said, “Colonel, you are right; I deserve all you have said and even more, but now do me the favour to accompany me home. Come, Valerie, my poor child, your father begs your pardon.”
As my father took my hand to lead me away, Madame d’Albret said to the colonel, “My dear Allarde, do you not incur a heavy responsibility in allowing that girl to go back again? You know what she said yesterday.”
“Yes, ma chère, I have been told by your sister, but it was said in a state of excitement, and I have no doubt that kindness will remove all such ideas. Monsieur de Chatenoeuf, I am at your orders.”
I never said a word during all this interview. Madame d’Albret tied the black veil round my head and let it fall to conceal my features, and I was led home by my father accompanied by the colonel. We went into the room where my mother was sitting. My father lifted the veil from my face.
“Madame,” said my father, in a severe tone, “do you see the condition to which your barbarity has reduced this poor girl? I have brought Monsieur Allarde here to tell you before him, that your conduct has been infamous, and that mine has been unpardonable in not having protected her from your cruelty; but I now tell you, that you have bent the bow till it has broken, and your power in this house is ended for ever.”
My mother was so much astonished at this severe rebuke before witnesses, that she remained with her mouth open and her eyes staring. At last she gave a sort of chuckling laugh.
“Madame, I am in earnest,” continued my father, “and you shall find that in future I command here. To your room, madame, immediately!”
The last word was pronounced in a voice of thunder. My mother rose, and as she retired, burst into a passionate flood of tears. The colonel then took his leave, saying to my father.
My father remained a quarter of an hour with me, consoling me and blaming himself, and promising that in future he would see me done justice to. I heard him without reply. The tears started in my eyes at his kind expressions, but I felt there was no security for his adhering to all he promised, and I trembled as I thought so. He left me and went out. My mother, who had been watching, as soon as she saw that he had left the house, hastened downstairs from her room, and came into the one where I was sitting alone.
“So, mademoiselle,” said she, panting, and apparently striving to contain herself, “my power in this house is gone for ever, and all through you. Ha, ha, ha! we shall see, we shall see. D’ye hear me, creature?” continued she, with her clenched hand close to my face. “No, not yet,” said she, after a pause, and then she left the room.
If my father’s kindness had somewhat staggered my resolution, this conduct of my mother’s confirmed it. I felt that she was right in what she said, and that in a month she would regain her sway, and drive me to desperation. During the whole of that day I made no reply to anything that was said to me by my brothers and sisters, who came in by stealth to see me. In this I followed the advice of Madame d’Albret, and at the same time my own feelings and inclinations. The servants who offered me dinner, and coaxed me to take some nourishment, could not get any answer from me, and at last one of them, who was a kind-hearted girl, burst out into tears, crying that mademoiselle was folle. My father did not come home to dinner; my mother remained in her room till he came in in the evening, and then he went up to her. It wanted but half-an-hour of the time that I had agreed to meet Madame d’Albret. I waited that time, during which I heard sounds of high altercation above stairs. I was quite alone, for my mother had prevented the children coming to me, and as the clock struck, I dropped my veil over my face and quietly walking out of the house, made for the rendezvous agreed.
I found the fiacre with Madame d’Albret waiting for me, and stepping into it, I was in a few minutes safely lodged in her splendid comfortable apartments. Madame d’Albret put me in a little cabinet inside of her own room, so that no one, except one servant whom she could trust, knew of my being on the premises. There I was left to recover from my bruises, and regain, if possible, my good looks. On the following day she repaired to the barracks, and remained with her sister till the evening, when she returned, and came up to me.
“All has happened as I wished,” said she, as she took off her bonnet; “you are nowhere to be found, and they have not the least suspicion that you are here. When you were first missed, they thought you had returned to the colonel’s, and your father did not think it advisable to make inquiry until the next morning, when to his surprise he learnt that you had never been there. The dismounted hussar, who was sentry during the evening, was then examined; and he replied, that about half-past eight o’clock, a young person, who by her figure he presumed to be Mademoiselle Chatenoeuf, had gone out of the gates, but that she had a thick veil over her face, and he could not see it. When your father and the colonel had interrogated the man and dismissed him, my poor sister burst into tears and said, ‘Alas! alas! then she has kept her word, and has thrown herself into the Seine. Oh, Monsieur Allarde, my sister said you would incur a heavy responsibility by sending that poor girl back, and now it has proved but too true: poor dear Valerie!’ Your father and the colonel were almost as much distressed as my sister, and it was just at that time that I came in.
“‘Sister,’ cried Madame Allarde to me, ‘Valerie has left the barracks.’
“‘What!’ exclaimed I, ‘When? oh my fear was too true!’ said I, clasping my hands and then taking out my handkerchief, I covered my face and sobbed. I tell you, Valerie, that nothing but my affection for you would have induced me to be so deceitful, but under the circumstances I hope I was justified. My assumed grief and distress quite removed any suspicion of your being here, and shortly afterwards the colonel made a sign to your father, and they both left the barracks; I have no doubt they went down to the Morgue, to ascertain if their fears had already been proved correct.”
“What is the Morgue, madame?” said I.
“Do you not know, my child? It is a small building by the side of the Seine, where all bodies which are found in the river are laid out for the examination of the friends of those who are missing. Below the bridges there is a large strong net laid across, which receives all the bodies as they are swept away by the tide; that is, it receives many, if not most of them, but some are never found again.”
Madame Allarde did not fail to return to the barracks on the next day, and found that a general excitement prevailed, not only among the officers but the men. My supposed suicide had been made known. My father had visited the Morgue a second time, and the police had been on the search without success. My mother dared not even show herself at the window of her apartments, and found herself avoided even by her own children. As for my father, he was half mad, and never met her but to load her with reproaches, and to curse his own folly in having so long submitted to her imperious will.
“At all events, one good has arisen from your supposed death, Valerie,” said Madame d’Albret, “which is, that your father has completely resumed his authority, and I do not think will ever yield it up again.”
“My poor father,” replied I, shedding tears, “I feel for him.”
“He is certainly to be pitied,” replied Madame d’Albret, “but it is his own conscience which must be his greatest tormentor. He was selfish enough not to feel for you during your years of persecution, and rather than have his own comforts invaded by domestic brawls for a short period, he allowed you to be sacrificed. But observe, Valerie, if you have still a wish to return to your parents, it is not too late. The regiment does not leave Paris till next Thursday.”
“Oh, no, no,” cried I, “my mother would kill me; don’t mention that again, madame,” continued I, trembling.
“I will not, my child, for to tell you the truth, you would not appear in so favourable a light, if you were now to return. You have caused much grief to my sister and husband, and they would not receive you with cordiality after having thus trifled with their feelings. It would also be a victory for your mother; and I doubt not but that in a short time she would again recover that power which for the present she has lost. You never can be happy in your family after what has passed, and I think that what has been done is for the best. Your father can well spare one child out of fourteen, having little more than a long sword for their support. Your supposed death will be the cause of your father retaining his lawful authority, and preventing any of the remaining children receiving such injustice as you have done; and remorse will check, if it does not humanise your mother, and I trust that the latter will be the case. I had well weighed all this in my mind, my dear Valerie, before I made the proposal, and I consider still that for your sake and for the sake of others, it is better that you should be the sacrifice. Nevertheless, I repeat, consult your own feelings, and if you repent the step which you have taken, there is yet time for you to return.”
“My dear madame, return I never will, unless I am taken by force. All I feel is, that I should like that my father’s bitter anguish was assuaged by his knowledge of my being still in existence.”
“And so should I, Valerie, were it possible that the communication could be made, and the same happy results be arrived at; but that cannot be, unless it should please Heaven to summon your mother, and then you might safely inform your father of your existence.”
“You are right, madame.”
“Yes, I think I am, Valerie; for, after all, your father duly deserves his severe penance, which is, to visit the Morgue every day; but painful as is the remedy, it is necessary for the cure.”
“Yes, madame,” replied I, sobbing, “all you say is true, but still I cannot help weeping and pitying my poor father; not that it alters my determination, but I cannot command my feelings.”
“Your feelings do you honour, Valerie, and I do not blame you for your grief. Do not, however, indulge it to excess, for that is turning a virtue into a failing.”
There were still three days remaining previous to the departure of the regiment for Lyons. I was sorely distressed during this time. I pictured to myself my father’s remorse, and would gladly have hastened to the barracks and thrown myself into his arms, but my mother’s image rose before me, and her last words, “We shall see if my power is gone for ever,” rung in my ears; her clenched hand was apparently close to my face, and then my resolution remained fixed. The swelling of my features had now subsided, and I had in some degree recovered my good looks; still my eye and cheeks were tinged black and yellow in various places, and the cuts on my head not quite healed. However, I was satisfied that the surgeon of the regiment was correct in his assertion that I should not be the least disfigured by the treatment which I had received.
“I have news for you,” said Madame d’Albret, as she returned from the barracks, where she had been to see her sister off on her journey. “Your brother, Auguste, who you know has been away, has returned to rejoin his regiment, but has since obtained his rank in another, which is stationed at Brest.”
“Why has he done so, madame? do you know? have you seen him?”
“Yes; he was at the colonel’s; he stated that he could not remain in the regiment if his mother continued with his father; that he should never be able after what had happened to treat his mother with common courtesy, still less with the duty of a son, and therefore he preferred leaving the regiment.”
“And my father, madame?”