The Intruder (Mumford)
By Ethel Watts Mumford
THE dowager duchess sat, still and grim, amid the dimmed splendors of the great hall of the chateau. She was small, slender, aristocratic to the tips of her lean fingers. The poise of her head was haughty, the glance of her eye, save to her few equals, a scornful rebuff. The dowager duchess not only represented the ancient house of Vantôme, but came herself of a line that traced itself back to dim days of heroic legends—the Gleōcs-Keral of Brittany. Now she awaited the coming of her only son, Germain Marie Claude Raoul, Duke of Villiers-Vantôme, and his parvenu bride.
Mellow chimes from the clock-tower of the Henry IV. wing rang out the hour—eleven. The sonorous music, beating softly through the wide halls, gathered mystery and depth as it reverberated from the Gothic arches of the chapel to drift in roaring cadence down the echoing corridors. The dowager duchess shuddered. Only half an hour more, and the stately palace must acknowledge an upstart American as its mistress. As she gazed on the painted ornaments of the huge, hooded fireplace—the rampant stags of Vantôme—tears rose to her eyes, tears of humiliation and disappointment. Was it for this she had servilely labored since the death of her husband? She had administered the estate with a hand of iron, that its dwindling revenues might provide the hereditary luxury, that Raoul might appear in Paris in the state befitting his rank, might live as the Duke de Vantôme should live, and marry a woman whose quarterings should do honor to the princely parchments of his father's pedigree. She had cloistered herself to live to this end, and to command the loyalty of peasants, the grudging homage of neighboring chatelaines. She had lived rigidly by the old régime; but her son had succumbed to the new.
She had refused to attend his wedding, giving ill health as her excuse; had been represented by her gift alone, the famous Valois necklace—noblesse oblige; the gifts of the dowager duchess must be princely.
Slow color mounted to her ashen cheeks, at the recollection of the Marquise de Vaux's scornful congratulations.
"Ah, ma chère, I hear from Paris, Raoul is to make a great marriage, a dot of millions, they say—oh, but millions and millions and millions—made in pork!"
"Raoul does not need to consider money,' ' the dowager duchess had answered, superbly mendacious; "the lands are intact." The marquise had winced, visibly. The estates of Vaux were mortgaged, neglected.
"Nor family, either, it would seem," the viper tongue had retorted.
"Yes, he has sufficient of that, also." The dowager duchess had the better of the encounter, yet the stab went deep.
The flighty, beruffled occupants of Arques Forret had dared to call upon her, excusing the intrusion by their intimacy with the foreign fiancée. Fortunately, she had been able to crush them with the accumulated magnificence of the château and her own queenly demeanor.
The sound of wheels aroused her from painful reverie.
Subdued whisperings in the corridor warned her that the servants were collected to welcome the new chatelaine. The ponderous, bronze-studded doors swung wide. The soft-toned tapestries undulated along the walls. A breath of Autumn air, sad with the memories of fallen leaves, swept into the room.
She remained seated in her ancient, throne-like chair, before the fire, only turning her head slightly as her tall son hurried to her side. Silently, she extended the thin fingers heavy with rings.
"Be welcome, my son," she said, at length.
He kissed the proffered hand.
"Madame, my mother—I present to you my wife, Claire."
With stately grace she turned to the intruder. "My son's wife should be welcome to Vantôme."
The girl bowed gracefully, but the flush that mantled her cheeks revealed her sense of the grudging reception accorded her.
The dowager duchess regarded her daughter-in-law fixedly, noting every line of the frail, fashionably gowned figure, every detail of the small, oval face, with its wide-set, blue eyes, and crown of iridescent black hair. The girl shivered slightly.
"You are cold," the dowager duchess suggested. "Raoul, there is wine and cake upon the table. The Autumn winds are chill."
"Thank you," said the bride, simply. "I am cold. I have only just recovered from a long illness, as perhaps you know."
"My son has told me. You must be weary. Amélie will conduct you to your apartments."
A gaunt woman, wearing the characteristic garb of Aries, appeared at the door as her name was spoken. With a sigh, half of weariness, half of relief, the Duchess Claire rose.
"Pardon my not accompanying you," the unforgiving voice went on; "I do not walk with ease." As the dowager spoke, she slightly lifted an ebony cane.
"An accident in the hunting field," her son hastened to explain, with a slight laugh. "You would never imagine that my mother was once a most enthusiastic sportswoman, first in every boar hunt in the arrondissement, would you?"
The girl looked up with a quick wonder in her blue eyes. She knew little or nothing of the ancien régime.
"Go and rest, Claire," her husband persisted, gently. "Remember, you are an invalid still. Amélie, see that she is well cared for."
The woman nodded, as her young mistress, with an inclination to the others, passed before her.
"Pretty and presentable, is she not, madame, ma mère?" said the duke, playfully, anxiety piercing the lightness of his tone.
His mother's eyes froze, her mouth set tight. "Pretty she is—presentable, never! The daughter of a parvenu, without race, without pride—presentable? Not among your father's people nor mine!"
"She's a sweet little girl," her son insisted, his brow darkening. "Her dot will place us once more among the first houses of France." That he loved his wife sincerely, was the last reason he would have dreamed of putting forward. He dreaded his mother's ridicule.
"Better poverty! And this"—with a sweeping gesture to the faded glories of the hall—"is not poverty; yet better the poverty of Gilles of the cross-roads, than a stain upon that!" She pointed bitterly to the shield and rampant stags of the carved mantel.
Raoul winced. "Do you love me, mother?" he asked, abruptly.
She turned to him. Her hard eyes softened, her mouth relaxed. "You are my only son," she answered.
He leaned over her, solicitous, tender. "Then be kind to her—for my sake. Remember, she is young, very young. She has been ill, is only half recovered. If her father had not been "called back to America, we should have postponed the wedding till the new year. Don't make it hard for her!"
"It is not as your mother that I object to this marriage," she said, slowly, avoiding a direct answer to his request. "It is the widow of Duke Henri of Villiers-Vantôme who rebels, the last descendant of du Guesclin, of the Gleōcs-Kerals, who weeps over this dishonor. I know it is useless, I know that in this age all that is thought of is money, all that gives position is extravagance. I belong to the relegated generation, with which honor and breeding is the only seal of superiority. I cannot accept this mésalliance as you would have me.
"She is a sick child, mother."
"She is an intruder in the house of your forefathers." The dowager duchess rose, leaning heavily upon her ebony cane. "Your hand, Raoul." He hastened to her assistance. "The gallery," she said, quietly.
They crossed the huge room slowly, her quick eyes flashing with pride unutterable upon the tattered banners, the shining trophies, the stands of armor; resting with loving recollection upon the vast Breton chests of carved wood, black with age, ponderous with Gothic locks, that had contained her marriage linens, heirlooms of the vast, rugged castle in which her early years had bloomed and waned.
Her son swung back the door to the passage, held the tapestry aside as she entered, and rejoined her, offering his arm.
The gallery was vast, long and narrow, one side a series of deep-set Gothic windows looking out upon terraces, where a sun-dial stared blankly at gray, Autumnal heavens, and mossy, marble rims confined dark spaces of water that reflected the deep green of huge hedges of trimmed box and cedar.
On the wall, facing the somber outlook, the portraits of the dead lords of Vantôme, with their ladies, hung, row on row—belaced seigneurs and mincing dames, by Mesnard; stalwart, beruffled gentlemen, by Vandyke; a subtle, smiling Italian countess, pictured by da Vinci; a black-browed, Spanish infanta, by Murillo; a laughing demoiselle de Bourgogne, by Rubens, and many more. Not one of all that pictured gathering but bore, either upon the masterly canvas, or its convoluted frame, the arms and tokens of heraldic fame—not one.
The dowager duchess made no comment. The duke understood; yet he persisted in his attempt to break down the barriers of caste. As they reëntered the great hall, he turned to her once more.
"Madame, ma mère, you will go to her soon; will you not? Make some excuse—anything. Be gentle with her, make her feel at home. You were once a bride. You know what it must be to come among strange faces and surroundings. Besides, she is not even of our country—think how alone she is! Mother, forget you are a Vantôme—remember you are a woman!"
They paused a moment by the huge centre-table with its weight of treasures—massive silver candlesticks, enamel boxes, the great horn of carved ivory, gift of Mazarin to Duke Jean IV., the bowl of priceless d'Oiron faīence, the work of the Countess Hélène herself. The eyes of the dowager duchess rested upon a casket of wrought steel. A strange look flitted across her pale, set face, a look at once of horror and fanaticism.
"Is this woman a heretic?" she asked, turning suddenly.
"She is a Protestant, madame, ma mère. We were married by special dispensation. I have no doubt," he added, grasping at this straw of hope, "that, if you will gain her confidence, you can win her to the Church."
She shook her head. "If she has not recanted for your sake, she will not for mine," she answered, coldly.
The strange look deepened in her old eyes, her thin, claw-like fingers played nervously with the hasps of steel. There was a moment's silence.
"Leave me now, Raoul," she said, slowly; "I wish to be alone. Later, I shall go to see your wife. She seems not well—I shall do for her what seems necessary."
The duke's face lighted up, joyously. "You are good, madame, ma mère. I knew, in the end, you would accept her for my sake."
"For your sake I shall do much. May God forgive me!"
He raised her unresisting hand to his lips. She seemed not to notice it, her head was sunk upon her breast, her eyes fixed upon the foliated lock.
"I leave you, then, madame, ma mère."
She nodded, absently.
Once alone, she glanced up, quickly, casting a look almost furtive about the silent room. Helmets gleamed in the subdued light. Omphale and Hercules stared out unseeing from the tapestry, the gargoyles of the carved beams grimaced, unobservant.
"None can ever guess," said the dowager duchess, slowly. She sought at her side the silver chatelaine with its trousseau of keys, which had been worn for generations by the ladies of Vantôme. She fitted and turned the key in the ancient box, threw back the lid, and looked within. There lay various packets wrapped in soft silk; one, larger and flatter than the others, she withdrew daintily. A yellowed slip of paper bore characters in old French: "The gloves of Catharine de' Medici, Queen of France, wife of Charles IX., given by her to Jeanne de Gae, second wife of Michael de Vantôme. These gloves were poisoned by Conotelli, the celebrated alchemist, who accompanied Catharine when, as Princess of Florence, she was married to the son of Francis I. To put one on is said to be certain and painless death, leaving no trace whatsoever. The secret, which belonged originally to the Borgias, died with the physician of the great Catharine."
She folded the slip, concealing it in her bosom.
A few moments later, the dowager duchess requested admittance to the presence of the new mistress of the manor.
Claire shivered slightly, as she lay on the great carved bed with its hangings of embroidered Genoese velvet, and, drawing her lacy négligée about her, struggled to a sitting position. "If she will pardon—will pardon—!" she stammered. The slow tap of the ebony cane and the heavy step outside her door made her tremble anew. In her weakness, she feared this haughty woman of ice and iron, as she had feared no one else in her life. She longed for the comforting presence of her husband, but it would be best to receive his mother at once.
Amélie flew to the door. The dowager duchess dropped the arm of the man-servant who escorted her, and leaned her weight upon the faithful Arlésienne.
"Pierre, bring the steel casket from the table in the tapestry hall—now, at once." The cane tapped impatiently. Turning, the dowager advanced slowly toward the bed.
Claire gazed, fascinated; she strove to rise, but sank back as, with a wave of her hand, her stately visitor directed. Amélie placed a chair for her mistress, taking up her position behind it.
"The casket for which I have sent contains some heirlooms. They should have formed a part of my wedding gift, but I preferred to wait till you came to place them in your keeping. In your country, perhaps, they do not value such things."
"Oh, yes, indeed we do," cried the girl. "You don't know how I love this wonderful place and all the beautiful things. Please don't think we Americans have so little appreciation——"
She broke off, tremulous, uncertain. Something in the inflexibility of the stern mouth before her, in the concentrated fire of the dark eves that burned into hers, made her feel strangely apprehensive. To her overwrought nerves, the woman before her seemed a terrible incarnation of some bird of prey, with curving beak and lean, unmerciful talons, herself its weak and fluttering quarry.
"Many of these things—trifles, some of them—were gifts or souvenirs of the great men and women who have honored Vantôme with their presence," the duchess went on. "Raoul never has taken the interest in these matters that he should. Half of these trophies he has never seen, nor has he ever cared to inquire into their history when he has been shown them. Yet, as chatelaine, you must guard and care for them."
"You honor me, madame," said the Duchess Claire.
A knock at the door interrupted them. The gaunt servant received the casket, and, placing it on the bed, was dismissed.
The older woman opened the box painfully; the lock was stiff and complicated; her jeweled fingers trembled.
"This," she said, reverently, opening a tattered velvet case of almost unrecognizable blue, "is the marshal's baton of Angoulême, and this, the ring of Cardinal Richelieu."
Claire sat up, her eyes wide, her breath coming quick. "How wonderful!" she murmured. The ring of Richelieu!—a huge, engraved amethyst, set in heavy gold. She slipped the band upon her finger, turning it over and over with awe.
"This is the tambour and part of the embroidery, just as she left it, made by Anne of Brittany during her brief stay in Normandy. She occupied the turret apartments in the old wing."
"Here?" asked Claire, under her breath.
"Here," said the dowager duchess. "This pin belonged to Mary Stuart, the Scottish princess, when she was the wife of the dauphin of France. These were her rooms—this is the bed she slept in."
Claire's eyes traveled in bewilderment over the huge, dark pillars, the red and tarnished gold of the hangings. "Mary Queen of Scots!" she murmured. "This—this is all like a dream, a sort of fairy story. I—I can't realize——"
The older woman smiled, contemptuously. "Here is the snuff-box my lord of Buckingham presented, when he was envoy from England at the court of Louis XV. The fan was the Montespan's; this star, the gift of Louis XIV. to Duke John—the royal party occupied Ventôme during the Autumn hunts; that dagger Diane de Poitiers wore to the chase—see the entwined crescents on the guard and the leaping stag upon the hilt. But, perhaps, I weary you."
"No, no!" cried the Duchess Claire. "This is all fairyland, too good to be true. I shall wake up—I know I shall!"
"Here is a diamond shoe-buckle of La Pompadour's. The reliquaire was made by Benvenuto Cellini to the order of Cardinal Vantôme." The claw fingers touched the last packet, fearfully. There was a pause, the bright eyes clouded. A spasm contracted the grim mouth, leaving it livid and determined.
The Duchess Claire gave no heed. With reverent fingers, she turned and re-turned the golden reliquary, with its garlands and sculptured saints, wondering, dreaming. All these treasures, hers! treasures heavy with the weight of centuries—actual, tangible links in the great human chain of history, bringing the past here to her hands—hands born and grown in that far, new world, where the wheel of Fortune whirled a hundred years of concentrated living into as many days. Something of the awe of mighty heights and depths grew in her soul, leaving her shrinking upon the brink of eternities of time and life. She raised her eyes to the face of the woman beside her. It was white as death itself, and as cold.
"These," said the dowager duchess, bending low over the packet in her lap, "are the gloves of Queen Catharine de' Medici. They were embroidered for the wife of Duke Michael. They have never been worn—look, how soft and flexible they are after all these years."
The Duchess Claire took the gloves, silently.
"How sweet they smell," she said, softly, raising them to her face, breathing the strange, dim fragrance they exhaled. "What is it? It's like nothing that I know—it seems hardly of earth."
"Put one on your hand for a few moments." The dowager duchess looked away, her eyes fixed on the ivory-and-silver crucifix upon the wall. "Your hand will retain the perfume, so they say, for a long, long time. It was a secret, the property of Catharine's court physician, and it died with him."
The girl obeyed, gently pulling on the embroidered gauntlet, preserved almost miraculously, its texture still flexible and fine, its golden flowers still whole, though brown with age.
"See how it fits!" she exclaimed. "It might have been made for me instead of for the wife of Duke Michael."
"Jean wishes to know at what hour you wish the déjeuner." The Arlésienne stood at the door.
"When the duke is ready," said the dowager duchess. Then, turning to her daughter-in-law: "Don't try to come down. Stay and take your rest. Amélie will serve you here, and Raoul shall come to you afterward. Let us put back your treasures now."
One by one, the storied relics were returned to their places, folded, enwrapped, encased many times, the girl stripping the gauntlet from her hand, reluctantly, and the gloves of the Florentine disappeared from the light of day to their steel prison.
With a sigh, the bride leaned back among her pillows. "I am so sleepy!" she murmured.
The dowager duchess rose with the help of her ebony cane, standing above the girl, a dark, brooding shadow.
"My daughter," she said—there was something tense and terrible in her tone—"my daughter, you will forgive me, if I have dealt hardly with you. Remember, I have but one son, and for him I have wished only the greatest and best the world had to give. I am the descendant of the kings of Brittany; my husband came from the lords of the Norman conqueror. When the hour comes that I must be judged, remember this. Forgive what seemed cruel."
The Duchess Claire sought to open her eyes, sought to make reply. Her lips repeated, mechanically, "What seemed cruel—forgive—" and, with a little sigh, like a tired child, she turned on her pillows, and fell asleep. Her face grew yellow-white as wax, her breathing difficult. How black seemed her hair on the white pillow!
Slowly, the dowager duchess crossed the room; slowly, the sound of her ebony cane and dragging footfall sounded down the echoing corridor. She found her way, unaided, to the wide hall, where the banners hung in tattered glory, where the shining arms of forgotten heroes gleamed in martial array.
There, in her great throne-chair, she sat down, her heart dead within her shrunken breast.
"No one will ever know," mured the dowager duchess. "My son's sons have been spared a low-born mother—God rest her soul!"