Yet I loved my mother as well, or better than I did my sisters. Butit is not so with those I have borne in my bosom, and nursed upon myknee."At this Rose flung herself, sobbing and screaming, at her mother'sknees. The baroness was abitcoin buy right nowlarmed. "Come, dearest, don't cry likethat. It is not too late to take your poor old mother into yourconfidence. What is this mystery? and why this sorrow? How comesit I intercept at every instant glances that were not intended forme? Why is the very air loaded with signals and secrecy? (Rosereplied only by sobs.) Is some deceit going on? (Rose sobbed.) AmI to have no reply but these sullen sobs? will you really tell menothing?""I've nothing to tell," sobbed Rose.
"I kinder hoped," she sobbed, "that yuniswap on app storeou'd let me stay. I'd stay in the barn if I couldn't be in the house. I'd just as soon work outdoors, too.""I don't think you'd be allowed to stay," said the farmer, with a sinking heart; "and then--perhaps your mother would be coming here."
"I can't stand mother no more'n you can" said the girl, through her set teeth. "I oughtn'ter been born, for there's no place for me in the world."Holcroft looked at his wife, his face expressive of the utmost annoyance, worry, and irresolution. Her glance was sympathetic, but she said nothing, feeling that if he could make the sacrifice from his own will he should have the chance. "You can't begin to know how much trouble this may lead to, Jane," he resumed. "You remember how your other threatened to take the law upon me, and it wouldn't be possible for you to stay here without her consent.""She oughter consent; I'll make her consent!" cried the child, speaking as if driven to desperation. "What's she ever done for me but teach me mean ways? Keep me or kill me, for I must be in some place where I've a right to be away from mother. I've found that there's no sense in her talk, and it drives me crazy."Although Jane's words and utterance were strangely uncouth, they contained a despairing echo which the farmer could not resist. Turning his troubled face to his wife, he began, ""If this is possible, Alida, it will be a great deal harder on you than it will on me. I don't feel that I would be doing right by you unless you gave your consent with full knowledge of--""Then please let her stay, if it is possible. She seems to need a friend and home as much as another that you heard about."
"There's no chance of such a blessed reward in this case," he replied, with a grim laugh. Then, perplexed indeed, he continued to Jane, "I'm just as sorry for you as I can be, but there's no use of getting my wife and self in trouble which in the end will do you no good. You are too young to understand all that your staying may lead to.""It won't lead to mother's comin' here, and that's the worst that could happen. Since she can't do anything for me she's got to let me do for myself."According to this authority, the first Baron of Beaurepaire hadpitched his tent under a fair oak-tree that stood prope rivum, neara brook. His grandson built a square tower hard by, and dug a moatthat enclosed both tree and tower, and received the waters of thebrook aforesaid.
At this time the tree seems only to have been remarked for itsheight. But, a century and a half before the monk wrote, it hadbecome famous in all the district for its girth, and in the monk'sown day had ceased to grow; but not begun to decay. The mutilatedarm I have mentioned was once a long sturdy bough, worn smooth asvelvet in one part from a curious cause: it ran about as high abovethe ground as a full-sized horse, and the knights and squires usedto be forever vaulting upon it, the former in armor; the monk, whena boy, had seen them do it a thousand times. This bough broke intwo, A.D. 1617: but the mutilated limb was still called the knights'bough, nobody knew why. So do names survive their ideas.What had not this tree seen since first it came green and tender asa cabbage above the soil, and stood at the mercy of the first hareor rabbit that should choose to cut short its frail existence!Since then eagles had perched on its crown, and wild boars fedwithout fear of man upon its acorns. Troubadours had sung beneathit to lords and ladies seated round, or walking on the grass andcommenting the minstrel's tales of love by exchange of amorousglances. Mediaeval sculptors had taken its leaves, and wiselytrusting to nature, had adorned churches with those leaves cut instone.
It had seen a Norman duke conquer England, and English kings invadeFrance and be crowned at Paris. It had seen a girl put knights tothe rout, and seen the warrior virgin burned by envious priests withcommon consent both of the curs she had defended and the curs shehad defeated.Why, in its old age it had seen the rise of printing, and the firstdawn of national civilization in Europe. It flourished and decayedin France; but it sprung in Gaul. And more remarkable still, thoughby all accounts it may see the world to an end, it was a tree inancient history: its old age awaits the millennium; its first youthbelonged to that great tract of time which includes the birth ofChrist, the building of Rome, and the siege of Troy.
The tree had, ere this, mingled in the fortunes of the family. Ithad saved their lives and taken their lives. One lord ofBeaurepaire, hotly pursued by his feudal enemies, made for the tree,and hid himself partly by a great bough, partly by the thick screenof leaves. The foe darted in, made sure he had taken to the house,ransacked it, and got into the cellar, where by good-luck was astore of Malvoisie: and so the oak and the vine saved the quakingbaron. Another lord of Beaurepaire, besieged in his castle, wasshot dead on the ramparts by a cross-bowman who had secreted himselfunobserved in this tree a little before the dawn.A young heir of Beaurepaire, climbing for a raven's nest to the topof this tree, lost his footing and fell, and died at its foot: andhis mother in her anguish bade them cut down the tree that hadkilled her boy. But the baron her husband refused, and spake inthis wise: "ytte ys eneugh that I lose mine sonne, I will nat alsoelose mine Tre." In the male you see the sober sentiment of theproprietor outweighed the temporary irritation of the parent. Thenthe mother bought fifteen ells of black velvet, and stretched a pallfrom the knights' bough across the west side to another branch, andcursed the hand that should remove it, and she herself "wolde neverpasse the Tre neither going nor coming, but went still about." Andwhen she died and should have been carried past the tree to thepark, her dochter did cry from a window to the bearers, "Goe about!goe about!" and they went about, and all the company. And in timethe velvet pall rotted, and was torn and driven away by the winds:and when the hand of Nature, and no human hand, had thus flouted anddispersed the trappings of the mother's grief, two pieces werepicked up and preserved among the family relics: but the blackvelvet had turned a rusty red.
So the baroness did nothing new in this family when she hung herchaplet on the knights' bough; and, in fact, on the west side, abouteighteen feet from the ground, there still mouldered one corner ofan Atchievement an heir of Beaurepaire had nailed there twocenturies before, when his predecessor died: "For," said he, "thechateau is of yesterday, but the tree has seen us all come and go."The inside of the oak was hollow as a drum; and on its east sideyawned a fissure as high as a man and as broad as a street-door.Dard used to wheel his wheelbarrow into the tree at a trot, andthere leave it.Yet in spite of excavation and mutilation not life only but vigordwelt in this wooden shell. The extreme ends of the longer boughswere firewood, touchwood, and the crown was gone this many a year:but narrow the circle a very little to where the indomitable trunkcould still shoot sap from its cruse deep in earth, and there onevery side burst the green foliage in its season countless as thesand. The leaves carved centuries ago from these very models,though cut in stone, were most of them mouldered, blunted, notched,deformed: but the delicate types came back with every summer,perfect and lovely as when the tree was but their elder brother: andgreener than ever: for, from what cause nature only knows, theleaves were many shades richer than any other tree could show for ahundred miles round; a deep green, fiery, yet soft; and then theirmultitude--the staircases of foliage as you looked up the tree, andcould scarce catch a glimpse of the sky. An inverted abyss ofcolor, a mound, a dome, of flake emeralds that quivered in thegolden air.
And now the sun sets; the green leaves are black; the moon rises:her cold light shoots across one half that giant stem.
How solemn and calm stands the great round tower of living wood,half ebony, half silver, with its mighty cloud above of flake jetleaves tipped with frosty fire!Now is the still hour to repeat in a whisper the words of the dameof Beaurepaire, "You were here before us: you will be here when weare gone."We leave the hoary king of trees standing in the moonlight, calmlydefying time, and follow the creatures of a day; for, what theywere, we are.
A spacious saloon panelled; dead but showy white picked outsparingly with gold. Festoons of fruits and flowers finely carvedin wood on some of the panels. These also not smothered in gilding,but as it were gold speckled here and there, like tongues of flamewinding among insoluble snow. Ranged against the walls were sofasand chairs covered with rich stuffs well worn. And in one littledistant corner of the long room a gray-haired gentleman and twoyoung ladies sat round a small plain table, on which burned asolitary candle; and a little way apart in this candle's twilight anold lady sat in an easy-chair, thinking of the past, scarce daringto inquire the future. Josephine and Rose were working: not fancy-work but needle-work; Dr. Aubertin writing. Every now and then heput the one candle nearer the girls. They raised no objection: onlya few minutes after a white hand would glide from one or other ofthem like a serpent, and smoothly convey the light nearer to thedoctor's manuscript."Is it not supper-time?" he inquired. "I have an inward monitor;and I think our dinner was more ethereal than usual.""Hush!" said Josephine, and looked uneasily towards her mother."Wax is so dear.""Wax?--ah!--pardon me:" and the doctor returned hastily to his work.But Rose looked up and said, "I wonder Jacintha does not come; it iscertainly past the hour;" and she pried into the room as if sheexpected to see Jacintha on the road. But she saw in fact verylittle of anything, for the spacious room was impenetrable to hereye; midway from the candle to the distant door its twilightdeepened, and all became shapeless and sombre. The prospect endedsharp and black, as in those out-o'-door closets imagined andpainted by a certain great painter, whose Nature comes to a fullstop as soon as he has no further commercial need of her, instead ofmelting by fine expanse and exquisite gradation into genuinedistance, as nature does in Claude and in nature. To reverse thepicture, if you stood at the door you looked across forty feet ofblack, and the little corner seemed on fire, and the fair headsabout the candle shone like the St. Cecilias and Madonnas in anantique stained-glass window.At last the door opened, and another candle fired Jacintha's comelypeasant face in the doorway. She put down her candle outside thedoor, and started as crow flies for the other light. After glowinga moment in the doorway she dived into the shadow and emerged intolight again close to the table with napkins on her arm. She removedthe work-box reverentially, the doctor's manuscript unceremoniously,and proceeded to lay a cloth: in which operation she looked at Rosea point-blank glance of admiration: then she placed the napkins; andin this process she again cast a strange look of interest upon Rose.The young lady noticed it this time, and looked inquiringly at herin return, half expecting some communication; but Jacintha loweredher eyes and bustled about the table. Then Rose spoke to her with asort of instinct of curiosity, on the chance of drawing her out.
"Supper is late to-night, is it not, Jacintha?""Yes, mademoiselle; I have had more cooking than usual," and withthis she delivered another point-blank look as before, and divedinto the palpable obscure, and came to light in the doorway.Her return was anxiously expected; for, if the truth must be told,they were very hungry. So rigorous was the economy in this decayedbut honorable house that the wax candles burned to-day in theoratory had scrimped their dinner, unsubstantial as it was wont tobe. Think of that, you in fustian jackets who grumble after meat.
The door opened, Jacintha reappeared in the light of her candle amoment with a tray in both hands, and, approaching, was lost toview; but a strange and fragrant smell heralded her. All their eyesturned with curiosity towards the unwonted odor, and Jacintha dawnedwith three roast partridges on a dish.They were wonder-struck, and looked from the birds to her in mutesurprise, that was not diminished by a certain cynical indifferenceshe put on. She avoided their eyes, and forcibly excluded from herface everything that could imply she did not serve up partridges tothis family every night of her life.
"The supper is served, madame," said she, with a respectful courtesyand a mechanical tone, and, plunging into the night, swam out at herown candle, shut the door, and, unlocking her face that moment,burst out radiant, and so to the kitchen, and, with a tear in hereye, set-to and polished all the copper stewpans with a vigor andexpedition unknown to the new-fangled domestic."Partridges, mamma! What next?""Pheasants, I hope," cried the doctor, gayly. "And after themhares; to conclude with royal venison. Permit me, ladies." And heset himself to carve with zeal.
Now nature is nature, and two pair of violet eyes brightened anddwelt on the fragrant and delicate food with demure desire; for allthat, when Aubertin offered Josephine a wing, she declined it. "Nopartridge?" cried the savant, in utter amazement."Not to-day, dear friend; it is not a feast day to-day.""Ah! no; what was I thinking of?""But you are not to be deprived," put in Josephine, anxiously. "Wewill not deny ourselves the pleasure of seeing you eat some.""What!" remonstrated Aubertin, "am I not one of you?"The baroness had attended to every word of this. She rose from herchair, and said quietly, "Both you and he and Rose will be so goodas to let me see you eat.""But, mamma," remonstrated Josephine and Rose in one breath."Je le veux," was the cold reply.These were words the baroness uttered so seldom that they werelittle likely to be disputed.
The doctor carved and helped the young ladies and himself.When they had all eaten a little, a discussion was observed to begoing on between Rose and her sister. At last Aubertin caught thesewords, "It will be in vain; even you have not influence enough forthat, Rose.""We shall see," was the reply, and Rose put the wing of a partridgeon a plate and rose calmly from her chair. She took the plate andput it on a little work-table by her mother's side. The otherspretended to be all mouths, but they were all ears. The baronesslooked in Rose's face with an air of wonder that was not veryencouraging. Then, as Rose said nothing, she raised heraristocratic hand with a courteous but decided gesture of refusal.
Undaunted Rose laid her palm softly on the baroness's shoulder, andsaid to her as firmly as the baroness herself had just spoken,--"Il le veut."The baroness was staggered. Then she looked with moist eyes at thefair young face, then she reflected. At last she said, with anexquisite mixture of politeness and affection, "It is his daughterwho has told me 'Il le veut.' I obey."Rose returning like a victorious knight from the lists, saucilyexultant, and with only one wet eyelash, was solemnly kissed andpetted by Josephine and the doctor.Thus they loved one another in this great, old, falling house.
Their familiarity had no coarse side; a form, not of custom butaffection, it went hand-in-hand with courtesy by day and night.The love of the daughters for their mother had all the tenderness,subtlety, and unselfishness of womanly natures, together with acertain characteristic of the female character. And whither thatone defect led them, and by what gradations, it may be worth thereader's while to observe.
The baroness retired to rest early; and she was no sooner gone thanJosephine leaned over to Rose, and told her what their mother hadsaid to the oak-tree. Rose heard this with anxiety; hitherto theyhad carefully concealed from their mother that the governmentclaimed the right of selling the chateau to pay the creditors, etc.;and now both sisters feared the old lady had discovered it somehow,or why that strange thing she had said to the oak-tree? But Dr.Aubertin caught their remarks, and laid down his immortal MS. onFrench insects, to express his hope that they were putting a forcedinterpretation on the baroness's words."I think," said he, "she merely meant how short-lived are we allcompared with this ancient oak. I should be very sorry to adopt theother interpretation; for if she knows she can at any moment beexpelled from Beaurepaire, it will be almost as bad for her as thecalamity itself; THAT, I think, would kill her.""Why so?" said Rose, eagerly. "What is this house or that? Mammawill still have her daughters' love, go where she will."Aubertin replied, "It is idle to deceive ourselves; at her age menand women hang to life by their habits; take her away from herchateau, from the little oratory where she prays every day for thedeparted, from her place in the sun on the south terrace, and fromall the memories that surround her here; she would soon pine, anddie."Here the savant seeing a hobby-horse near, caught him and jumped on.He launched into a treatise upon the vitality of human beings, andproved that it is the mind which keeps the body of a man alive forso great a length of time as fourscore years; for that he had in theearlier part of his studies carefully dissected a multitude ofanimals,--frogs, rabbits, dogs, men, horses, sheep, squirrels,foxes, cats, etc.,--and discovered no peculiarity in man's organs toaccount for his singular longevity, except in the brain or organ ofmind. Thence he went to the longevity of men with contented minds,and the rapid decay of the careworn. Finally he succeeded inconvincing them the baroness was so constituted, physically andmentally, that she would never move from Beaurepaire except into hergrave. However, having thus terrified them, he proceeded to consolethem. "You have a friend," said he, "a powerful friend; and here inmy pocket--somewhere--is a letter that proves it."The letter was from Mr. Perrin the notary. It appeared by it thatDr. Aubertin had reminded the said Perrin of his obligations to thelate baron, and entreated him to use all his influence to keep theestate in this ancient family.
Perrin had replied at first in a few civil lines; but his presentletter was a long and friendly one. It made both the daughters ofBeaurepaire shudder at the peril they had so narrowly escaped. Forby it they now learned for the first time that one Jaques Bonard, asmall farmer, to whom they owed but five thousand francs, had goneto the mayor and insisted, as he had a perfect right, on the estatebeing put up to public auction. This had come to Perrin's ears justin time, and he had instantly bought Bonard's debt, and stopped theauction; not, however, before the very bills were printed; for whichhe, Perrin, had paid, and now forwarded the receipt. He concludedby saying that the government agent was personally inert, and wouldnever move a step in the matter unless driven by a creditor."But we have so many," said Rose in dismay. "We are not safe a day."Aubertin assured her the danger was only in appearance. "Your largecreditors are men of property, and such men let their funds lieunless compelled to move them. The small mortgagee, the pettymiser, who has, perhaps, no investment to watch but one small loan,about which he is as anxious and as noisy as a hen with one chicken,he is the clamorous creditor, the harsh little egoist, who for fearof risking a crown piece would bring the Garden of Eden to thehammer. Now we are rid of that little wretch, Bonard, and havePerrin on our side; so there is literally nothing to fear."The sisters thanked him warmly, and Rose shared his hopes; and saidso; but Josephine was silent and thoughtful. Nothing more worthrecording passed that night. But the next day was the first of May,Josephine's birthday.
Now they always celebrated this day as well as they could; and usedto plant a tree, for one thing. Dard, well spurred by Jacintha, hadgot a little acacia; and they were all out in the Pleasaunce toplant it. Unhappily, they were a preposterous time making up theirfeminine minds where to have it set; so Dard turned rusty and saidthe park was the best place for it. There it could do no harm,stick it where you would."And who told you to put in your word?" inquired Jacintha. "You'rehere to dig the hole where mademoiselle chooses; not to argufy."Josephine whispered Rose, "I admire the energy of her character.
Could she be induced to order once for all where the poor thing isto be planted?""Then where WILL you have it, mademoiselle?" asked Dard, sulkily."Here, I think, Dard," said Josephine sweetly.