Jacqueline of the Peach Blossoms
JACQUELINE OF THE PEACH BLOSSOMS
Author of "Stinging Nettles;" "The Viper of Milan," etc.
AMBROSE MORNAY cautiously crept between the bare vine poles which had just been planted in the soft newly-turned ground, jumped a low wall of red brick which separated the vineyard and the fruit garden from the flower garden, and so stood at the bottom of the lawn and terraces of the Château Mornay, looking up at that building that had been his home and, by inheritance, was his property, but which he had not seen since he had fled from the château and the country, fled for his life in the Revolution, the first of those terrible days of blood and desolation, the first fury of that storm which had afterwards swept away king, queen, princes, nobility, as a scythe sweeps off the heads of the flowers among the corn, and had levelled with the dust the old order of things in France as a sea wave will level a sand castle built by the hands of a child.
So he had fled, he and his family, with no more than they could carry with them, and had escaped in the boat of a fisher from the neighbouring fishing village, whose father had been one of their peasants, and so had tossed into Calais roads and finally on to the friendly coast of England. There they had lived, in exile and in poverty, but in peace.
The father had a few securities in England which brought them in a modest income, the two daughters taught the French language and the fine French embroidery learnt at the Ursuline convent. He (Ambrose) had taught fencing, and tried hard to forget the past and his bitter yearning for the old life and his own land.
Then one day he had found his elder sister in bitter, silent tears. She had only a sad mystery to offer to his eager questions, but presently he drew the truth from his mother.
Hélène was in love. What would you? She was twenty-five and beautiful. If misfortune had not happened, she would have been wedded long ago. It was another emigré, a young count, who made his living by his fine handwriting, copying for a great London bank. Between them they had not enough to buy a wedding-ring, and there was the tragedy. Again, what would you?
And Ambrose had suddenly revolted against exile and misfortune and poverty. Here was one woman's life blighted, and another fair girl growing up uselessly, hopelessly.
So it came that he took the price of his last series of fencing lessons, travelled to Dover in the boot of the public stage, grimly enduring discomfort, crossed the Channel in one of the English fishing fleet, and made his way along the coast to his old home.
At the tiny village near by he found the man who had rescued them three years before, and with him made a compact that he was again to be taken to England in the little fishing barque.
From this man Ambrose also gathered details of the château. It had been confiscated, of course, but who was the present owner the fisher did not know. Several deputies, members of the Committee of Public Safety and great ones of the Revolution, had stayed there for a day or two when coming down to terrorise the countryside or hunt for aristocrats or emigrés. The place was well kept, the fellow had added, and now Ambrose stood at the foot of the château he saw for himself that this was true.
He passed slowly behind the thick hedge of shrubs which bordered the lawn that swept in smooth green grass up to an ancient cypress, black and spreading, which stood below the terraces. It seemed to Ambrose that this was another of his exile's dreams, and that presently the scene would vanish, and the dreary houses of Bed Lion Square close round him again.
The château stood on ground slightly rising, four walls and four rounded tourelles ending in delicate spires. The wide door, the green-shuttered windows, the bridge over what had once been the moat, the two formal stone terraces with the stone seats and the great vases of flowers at the top of the steps, the outbuildings, the stables, the farms beyond, with the gilded weathercock, the meadows sloping to the woods, the woods darkening into the distance—all was unchanged as it had been unchanged since the days when the château was built in the reign of King Francis I.
Ambrose had satisfied himself that the château was empty and that no one was about, but he still moved cautiously, keeping himself within the shadows of the laurels.
It was early April and intensely still. When he turned and looked behind him, he could see the ocean blue between the bare trees, low and still, melting into the paler sky, but the murmur of it was faintly in his ears and filled the air persistently as a perfume.
No trees were green save the olives which sloped down to the sea, but all had a look of life, of vitality, as if they were but waiting to break into bloom. Here and there the violets and primroses still lingered, and in the meadows blew the purple wind-flowers and the white-and-yellow clusters of the narcissi.
Ambrose drew in the air in great breaths, it was so sweet, so sweet! And it was his—his father's and his. Here his life had been spent, here he had meant to die. And now he was creeping back, an outcast, an exile, creeping back, like a thief, to his own!
The angry tears rushed to his eyes, his shoulders heaved. He set his teeth and hastened on towards the château. White pigeons were wheeling before it, but there was no other sign of life—no horse, no dog, no open window, no smoke from any chimney.
Ambrose came boldly out on to the terrace, and the sun met him and enclosed him in warmth like a generous embrace of welcome. He noticed that grass grew on the terrace and before the door, that the windows were all shuttered and bolted across, and that the bolts were rusty from the sea air, as if they had been in that position for some time.
Ambrose quickly and lightly crossed the terrace and gained the right side of the château, which was in shadow. There he paused, listening. There were only two sounds—that universal murmur of the sea and the cooing of the strutting pigeons.
Through the bare trees he could see a long way to right and left, before and behind, and his eyes searched keenly. There was no one. Looking before him, a line of peach trees bordered the vine poles; the deep pink of the blossoms against the blue sea and the bare trees awakened a sudden memory that was like a pain in his heart.
A memory of such another day of peace, of stillness, of clear sunshine, a memory of a girl, bare-headed, bare-footed, in a white cotton frock, creeping in among the peach trees and breaking off branches of the blossom.
So he had found her, a daring peasant child, robbing the trees of the flowers which would become his father's fruit. If it had been a boy, Ambrose would have used the whip he carried. Even though it was a girl, his anger had flared, and he had ordered her off in angry tones.
But she had shown defiance; she had grasped the peach boughs tight against the bosom of her ragged gown and faced him. And then, because he had seen that she was more than pretty, he fell to laughing at her spirit, and, barring her way, asked her name.
"Jacqueline," she had answered hotly, staring at him, lowering and fierce, a fair thing, brown and gold, flushed and panting, with dishevelled strands of auburn hair blowing about her face, and for her background the blue sea and the dark pink masses of the peach blossoms. "Jacqueline of the Peach Blossoms," he had named her in mockery, and, taking her arm, had offered to let her go with her plunder for a kiss.
She had fiercely refused, wounding his pride, and he had taken his kiss by force with a laugh that was not gentle.
How clearly he remembered now the feel of her warm, sunburnt cheek, the gesture of wrath with which she had flung down the disputed blossoms at his feet, broken away and beaten through the bushes like an angry, hunted animal.
Afterwards he had met her many times on the sea-shore, among the olive slopes in the white street of the village, or in the meadows.
She had had no curtsey for him, though he was the heir of Mornay, and he had always had his jest of her, greeting her laughingly as "Jacqueline of the Peach Blossoms."
How long ago it all seemed now, how remote, how foolish! And yet with what painful distinctness the little incident came back as he stared at the same peach trees rosy against the same sea!
With an effort he shook the memories from him and turned to his business. Following the side of the château, he came to the window of the room he wanted—the long window of the library, which opened like a door on to the terrace.
The beating of his heart increased as, taking from their case the tools he had brought with him, he proceeded to unfasten the bolts and lift the bars which held the faded green shutter in place. The fastenings were not very elaborate nor very difficult, and he soon had the shutters swinging loose in his hands.
The tall glass windows were bolted again from the inside, but Ambrose shivered the glass, put his hand through the aperture, and slipped back the fastenings. Creaking from rust, they gave way, and Ambrose stepped into the library, behind him a stream of sunlight that showed the motes in the close atmosphere of the room.
Ambrose moved stealthily, saw that the room was empty, saw that it was much as he had left it, and leant against the wall, suddenly weak with a sense of homesickness. Evidently there had been nothing in the library that had attracted the cupidity of the mob, nothing that roused their lust of destruction. The smooth waxed walls, the colour of dark amber, were undefaced, the portraits of dead Mornays, in ruff or whimple, armour or periwig, had been respected; they still hung in a level row above the low bookcases, and looked out, calmly smiling or calmly grave, from the dimmed gold of their frames. The very books were untouched, the Greeks and Latins, the ancient French, stood erect and well ordered. There were the desks, dark and yet shining, with their drooping handles shaped like fuchsia blossoms, the leather chairs with brass nails, the shining floor—all was well kept. Ambrose thought the place looked exactly as it had looked when he left it three years ago.
Hope sprang up brilliant in his heart. If all was untouched, then what he had come for must be untouched, too. Above the wide open hearth and beneath the antique stone mantelpiece was a long, low panel of wood deeply and finely carved with the arms of Mornay. Ambrose went to this and gently touched it with his forefinger. He had reached the end of his quest.
The scene when he had last stood on this spot was very vividly before his mind. His two sisters, clinging together and trying not to weep; from without his father's voice urging them to haste, rising out of the turmoil of fierce noises which came from the peasantry, who were attacking the château in front; his mother trying with nervous fingers to wrench back this panel behind which all the family treasures were hidden; then the bursting open of the doors, the entrance of the red-capped sans culotte who had discharged his pistol at the lady—there was the lead still deep-embedded in the wall behind where Madame Mornay had stood—the wild flight of all through the window into the merciful half dark which had protected them.
And now Ambrose Mornay stood again before that panel which hid, he believed, what would for ever relieve their poverty, that which would dower his sisters and give comfort to his parents and himself.
If only it had not been tampered with! On which side were the gods to-day? It was some time before he could sufficiently steady himself to touch the secret spring which was concealed in a rose of the foliated border. At last he nerved himself and put his finger on the button.
The beautiful mechanism instantly responded, the panel slid noiselessly back, and a deep cavity in the wall was visible—a deep cavity filled with boxes, cases, bundles of papers and rolls of documents all kept fresh, dry and free from moth or rat by the steel-lined walls.
Ambrose put his hand over his heart and blessed God with tears in his eyes. First he took out all the family papers and put them carefully into his pockets. Over the rolls of bank bills he hesitated; they were, he feared, of little use now, though amounting in face value to many thousands of livres, but there were contracts, bills of purchase, receipts, title-deeds relating to property in Spain and the East, which he eagerly seized.
Then, having disposed of these matters, he took out the caskets and boxes one at a time and placed them on the floor beside him.
The largest, a casket of dull grey satin embroidered with seed pearls stretched over a frame of cedar-wood, he quickly opened—as all the others, it was not locked. Within, enclosed in a bag of mauve velvet, he found what he sought. The famous Mornay diamonds, the homage of a former King of France to a long-dead mistress of the château—they were all intact, strings of flashing brilliancy for neck and wrist, a star for the bosom, long pendants for the ears, all like frozen crystal with liquid gold and molten fire, the tumultuous blue of the sea, the passionate red of live blood, the vivid green of imprisoned water flashing in their hearts and striving to be free of their white prison, all beautiful with the beauty of things eternal and unchangeable.
Ambrose put them back softly into the casket and opened the others. In one was a parure of pearls and emeralds fitting each piece into its own piece in the velvet-lined tray, old-fashioned in design and exquisite in the quality of the stones; in another was a gentleman's solitaire diamond and waistcoat buttons of jasper and topaz, together with shoe buckles of gold and brilliants; in another more women's ornaments of rubies sapphires, and fine silver, while a tall box of sandalwood contained all manner of rings, cameos, intaglios, cut gem and seal rings and ladies' rings of precious and sparkling stones.
There still remained in the back of the recess several valuable sword hilts and pistols, together with some parcels of gold plate and a few articles of rock crystal. These were, however, too heavy for Ambrose to contemplate taking them with him; nor did he even dare to waste time in regrets.
Spreading his silk handkerchief on the polished floor, he emptied one casket after the other on to it, the diamonds on top of all, so that the whole gleamed like a cluster of fallen stars in the broad beam that fell from the open window.
Then, suddenly, as he was preparing to knot the handkerchief together and conceal his treasure about his person, this sunlight was obscured, and the jewels flashed more dimly in shadow.
Ambrose looked up instantly, then rose to his feet and stood erect. A woman stood in the long window. She had come so softly that only her shadow had betrayed her. She stood now with an air of softness and lightness, her hands hanging at her side, her eyes very observant.
She was dressed in a full gown the colour of sea-lavender, a hue between sharp blue and misty grey; she wore a cap of fine muslin—through which her autumn hair gleamed as sunlight behind a cloud—and an apron of silvered silk.
She was beautiful and brown and rosy, her face was thoughtful and yet gay. In her ears hung the large gold hoops loved by the peasantry. Her black latchet shoes were low enough to show a white silk stocking encasing a slender ankle.
Ambrose saw all these details as clearly as he had once seen the details of a flower through a magnifying glass. He stood bewildered, dumb, then suddenly his voice and his memory served him.
"Jacqueline of the Peach Blossoms!" he exclaimed.
She flushed deeper and her eyes darkened into a sombre brilliancy. But she said nothing. Perhaps she was trying to recall in this quiet young man, in the rather worn olive-coloured travelling suit, with the plain turned back hair and the simple neckcloth, the gorgeous young gentleman who had kissed her under the peach trees.
"What do you mean to do?" he challenged her silence.
"Ah," she answered, "what do I mean to do? This time it is I who catch the great seigneur stealing—and stealing what is more valuable than peach blossoms!"
"I take what is my own!" he flashed back.
"Nothing here is your own," she said calmly and with force. "The château belongs now to a certain Monsieur Fabre."
"I am his housekeeper," she replied serenely.
"He is here now?"
"Yes. He is an old gentleman, and uses a few rooms only. He never comes here; that is why I knew, when I saw the window open, that there was some thief here, Monsieur Mornay."
She still spoke with level quietness and still retained her post in the window, blocking out the sun from him. He, too, was calm, in desperation and despair.
"M. Fabre's son is in the house, too, to-day," she continued with an air of triumph, "or soon will be, and if I clap my hands or ring this"—she stepped suddenly into the room and under the long bell-rope—"he will come and deal with you."
"Are you not afraid," breathed Ambrose, "that I might wring your pretty neck, Jacqueline, first?"
"Oh, no," she mocked. "You are a great seigneur, Monsieur Mornay!"
"So you trade on that," he smiled with pallid lips, "These—these Fabres"—his tone was bitter as he spoke the name of the usurpers—"are of the people?"
She smiled with a pride equal to his own.
"Yes, monsieur. The son is a great soldier—he has done much in La Vendée."
Ambrose folded his arms and leant back against the wall. "The Revolution has changed you," he remarked, glancing at her from head to foot; "you have flourished in these years of liberty."
She gave him look for look. "You, too, have changed."
"I know. Does it please you? You have a pretty face, but a vulgar little heart, I doubt not." So said he in his wrath and bitterness.
Her blush deepened again, but she answered quietly: "Oh, I have my revenge! You humiliated me when I was a silly child, and now I humiliate you."
Ambrose answered gravely: "Nay, you do not humiliate me. You find me taking what is my own, what I have great and pressing need of."
Her eyes flickered to the bell-rope.
"Oh, ring!" said Ambrose. "Ring, my child, and let us end this foolish conversation. What will your master do with me, eh?"
"Shoot you in the ditch," she replied. "Oh, yes, and bury you like a dog, of course. Oh, yes! Say your prayers, Monsieur Mornay!" And she stamped her foot in some kind of fury. "Why do you think me so hateful?" she suddenly demanded. "Once you thought I was too mean to refuse your kiss, and now you think I am too mean to be anything but your executioner."
He thought, perhaps, she might want his entreaties, his flatteries, but it was not in him to give her those. "I think you will serve your own kind," he replied coldly. "Why do you not ring?"
For reply, she picked up the handkerchief full of jewels. Casting it on the desk beside her she picked up the ornaments one at a time and, gazing at them, she gave a mocking laugh.
"So you had your secret treasures there all the time. Who is the lady whose charms have driven you to this dangerous enterprise, Monsieur Mornay?"
"Oh, Jacqueline, little Jacqueline," he answered, "because I once kissed you against your will——"
"You are bold to remind me of it!" cried she, flaming.
"—must you insult me when I am at your mercy, you poor, silly child? I wanted the jewels to redeem us from poverty and, most of all, to dower my dear sister. Now they will adorn the neck of this upstart's wife, and I had rather that they had been flung into the sea. As for the papers they will find on me afterwards, I pray you, for charity, ask them to burn them or fling them with me in the ditch, for I know it is useless to ask you to send them to my parents."
She did not reply; she bent her head and, crossing the room, stooped and picked up all the empty caskets, flung them into the secret recess, and drew the sliding panel into place. Then she returned to the handkerchief of jewels and knotted the four corners of the silk together crossways, like a peasant's bundle.
"Those are her spoils," he thought; "she will not share them."
Jacqueline had hardly drawn the last knot tight before the door was rather violently opened and a tall man stepped into the apartment.
The girl seemed more surprised than Ambrose; she with difficulty suppressed a scream, and leant back against the wall, her face suddenly frightened. Ambrose stood quite still, quite colourless, quite fearless.
The newcomer was handsome in a dark, heavy fashion, and richly, though plainly, dressed. Ambrose at once guessed him to be the son of the present owner of the château.
"What is this?" he cried, glancing from one to the other. "I heard voices. I know there should be no one here. What is it, eh, Jacqueline?"
She came forward. "Chut!" she cried. "You frightened me! I thought you were out."
"Nay, I am here, as you see," he answered keenly.
"Well," said Jacqueline, "I suppose you will be angry."
She looked straightly at the man who was waiting to hear his death sentence from her lips. Not the least sign of dread nor terror, agitation nor fear, did Ambrose Mornay show. He stood completely at his ease, a man in his own house. He glanced once sideways out of the broken window at the peach trees, and he smiled a little ironically at a memory. The other man waited.
"Oh, how grim you look!" cried Jacqueline. "What do you think I have to tell you? This fellow is one of those strolling pedlars who are always coming, and whom you forbade me to see. These are his samples"—she calmly held up the handkerchief of jewels—"and—oh, what is a girl to do who never sees Paris? I let him in here, thinking you would not find us."
Ambrose felt suddenly sick and giddy, the branches of the distant peach blossoms danced madly before his eyes. Now she had given him his life, or a chance of life, he knew how terrible had been the near approach of death.
"And the broken window?" asked the other man.
"Why, the shutter was rusty and I was in a hurry, and so it broke, Monsieur Fabre." Jacqueline shrugged her shoulders. She turned to Ambrose. "And now you had better go, fellow; your goods are too dear, and you are getting me into trouble with my master."
Ambrose rallied. "Although you have purchased nothing," he said, with a very low bow, "I shall never forget my kind reception here. I pray for our future meeting."
"Perhaps we shall," she said carelessly. "But do not come here again, friend, for we are strictly kept."
"Let me see the samples," demanded M. Fabre quietly.
"No," answered Jacqueline. "If we once untie his bundles, we must buy."
"Perhaps I might buy you a fairing, Jacqueline."
She faced him straightly. "There is nothing there I care for," she said, and handed the handkerchief to Ambrose. He was still giddy, still dazed as he took it from her. He picked up his hat and cloak, gave her one look as he uttered his conventional farewells, and was gone through the broken window.
Man and girl stood silent, watching his figure disappear across the terraces. It was the man who spoke first.
"That was young Mornay. Why did you let him go?"
She paled but smiled. "For honour's sake."
"Why did you lie to me? Did you think I believed that foolish story?"
"At least it served."
"Why was he here?"
"He had some family treasures hidden here," answered Jacqueline. "He needed them—they are poor."
"So am I," said M. Fabre grimly.
"Ah, you do not need money!" she flashed.
"I might want jewels."
"For the wife I may marry."
"Your wife," said Jacqueline, "will only want the jewels you can earn for her yourself, monsieur."
He stepped forward suddenly and caught her by the shoulders. "Do you know that I love you?" he asked.
"Yes," said Jacqueline, bravely holding up her face.
"Why did you let him go?" he asked passionately.
"Listen! In the old days he caught me stealing peach blossoms. Before he let me go he kissed me against my will. I hated him. Then he named me 'Jacqueline of the Peach Blossoms.' People took that name for me. When you took the château you heard it and liked it, and sought me out for your servant, and it was under the peach trees we met, the first time a year ago—do you remember?—when I was coming up to the château, with my bundle, to be your servant. And after a little I no longer hated the man who had given me the name you liked. Do you understand? I owed him something—I paid that debt to-day."
At the end of her breathless recital she drooped her flushed face, and to kiss left only the muslin cap that veiled the gleaming hair.
"Oh, sweet," he said, "I love you so!" And after a little he added: "But if I had not loved you, I should never have let you fool me!"
"Ah, Charles," she answered shyly, looking up and lifting her face, "had I not known that you loved me, I should never have tried!"
In after-times the château returned to the possession of the Mornay family, and Ambrose Mornay lived there with an English bride who wore his mother's jewels; but the finest of the Mornay diamonds sparkled on the throat of Madame Fabre, a wedding gift from him who had named her "Jacqueline of the Peach Blossoms." And when her husband was one of the famous generals of the First Empire, he often brought her to the Château Mornay to visit her friends, the lord and chatelaine, and his two sisters happily wed, and to see the little fruit trees that every year renewed youth and beauty and memories as deep as love.