Story type: Literature
As Played at Manneville, September 18, 1750
“L’on a choisi justement le temps que je parlois à mon traiste de fils. Sortons! Je veux aller querir la justice, et faire donner la question à toute ma maison; à servantes, à valets, à fils, à fille, et à moi aussi.
PRINCE DE GATINAIS, an old nobleman, who affects yesterday’s fashion.
Louis QUILLAN, formerly LOUIS DE SOYECOURT, son to the Prince, and newly become GRAND DUKE OF NOUMARIA.
VANRINGHAM, valet to the Prince.
NELCHEN THORN, daughter to Hans Thorn, landlord of the Golden Pomegranate, and loves Louis Quillan.
And In the Proem, DUKE OF OSMSKIRK.
The Dolphin Room of the Golden Pomegranate, an inn at Manneville-en-Poictesme.
PROEM:-To Present Mr. Vanringham as Nuntius
However profoundly the Duc de Puysange now approved of the universe and of its management, it is not to be supposed that in consequence he intended to overlook de Soyecourt’s perfidy. De Puysange bore his kinsman no malice; indeed, he was sincerely fond of the Marquis, sympathized with him at bottom, and heartily regretted that the excellence of poor Louis’ taste should be thus demonstrably counterbalanced by the frailty of his friendship. Still, one cannot entirely disregard the conventions: Louis had betrayed him, had before the eyes of de Puysange made love to de Puysange’s wife. A duel was the inevitable consequence, though of course the Duke did not intend to kill poor Louis, who might before long be very useful to French statesmanship. So the Duke sent Ormskirk to arrange a meeting.
A floridly handsome man in black was descending the stairway of the Hôtel de Soyecourt at the moment the Duke of Ormskirk stepped cheerily from his coach. This person saluted the plump nobleman with due deference, and was accorded in return a little whistling sound of amazement.
“Mr. Vanringham, as I live–and in Paris! Man, will you hare-brained Jacobites never have done with these idiotic intrigues? Nay, in sincerity, Mr. Vanringham, this is annoying.”
“My Lord Duke,” said the other, “I venture to suggest that you forget I dare no longer meddle with politics, in light of my recent mishap at Tunbridge. Something of the truth leaked out, you comprehend–nothing provable, thank God!–but while I lay abed Captain Audaine was calling daily to inquire when would my wound be healed sufficiently for me to have my throat cut. I found England unsalubrious, and vanished.”
Ormskirk nodded his approval. “I have always esteemed your common-sense. Now, let us consider–yes, I might use you here in Paris, I believe. And the work is light and safe,–a trifle of sedition, of stirring up a street riot or two.”
Vanringham laughed. “I might have recognized your hand in the late disturbances, sir. As matters stand, I can only thank your Grace and regret that I have earlier secured employment. I’ve been, since April, valet to the old Prince de G�tinais, Monsieur de Soyecourt’s father.”
“Yet lackeyship smacks, however vaguely, of an honest livelihood. You disappoint me, Mr. Vanringham.”
“Nay, believe me, I yet pilfer a cuff-button or perhaps a jewel, when occasion offers, lest any of my talents rust. For we reside at Beaujolais yonder, my Lord Duke, where we live in retirement and give over our old age to curious chemistries. It suits me well enough. I find the air of Beaujolais excellent, my duties none too arduous, and the girls of the country-side neither hideous nor obdurate. Oho, I’m tolerably content at Beaujolais–the more for that ’tis expedient just now to go more softly than ever Ahab did of old.”
“Lest your late associates get wind of your whereabouts? In that I don’t question your discretion, Mr. Vanringham. And out of pure friendliness I warn you Paris is a very hotbed of hot-headed Jacobites who would derive unmerited pleasure from getting a knife into your ribs.”
“Yet on an occasion of such importance–” Vanringham began; then marvelled in reply to the Duke’s look of courteous curiosity: “You han’t heard, sir, that my master’s son is unexpectedly become the next Grand Duke of Noumaria!”
“Zounds!” said his Grace of Ormskirk, all alert, “is old Ludwig dead at last? Why, then, the damned must be holding a notable carnival by this, in honor of his arrival. Hey, but there was a merry rascal, a thorough-paced–” He broke off short. He laughed. “What the devil, man! Monsieur de Soyecourt is Ludwig’s nephew, I grant you, on the maternal side, but Ludwig left a son. De Soyecourt remains de Soyecourt so long as Prince Rudolph lives,–and Prince Rudolph is to marry the Elector of Badenburg’s daughter this autumn, so that we may presently look for any number of von Freistadts to perpetuate the older branch. Faith, you should study your Genealogischer Hofkalender more closely, Mr. Vanringham.”
“Oh, but very plainly your Grace has heard no word of the appalling tragedy that hath made our little Louis a reigning monarch–“
With gusto Francis Vanringham narrated the details of Duke Ludwig’s last mad freak [Footnote: In his Journal Horace Calverley gives a long and curious account of the disastrous masque at Breschau of which he, then on the Grand Tour, had the luck to be an eye-witness. His hints as to the part played in the affair by Kaunitz are now, of course, largely discredited by the later confessions of de Puysange.] which, as the world knows, resulted in the death of both Ludwig and his son, as well as that of their five companions in the escapade,–with gusto, for in progress the soul of the former actor warmed to his subject. But Ormskirk was sensibly displeased.
“Behold what is termed a pretty kettle of fish!” said the Duke, in meditation, when Vanringham had made an end. “Plainly, Gaston cannot fight the rascal, since Hop-o’-my-thumb is now, most vexatiously, transformed into a quasi-Royal Personage, Assassination, I fear, is out of the question. So all our English plans will go to pot. A Frenchman will reign in Noumaria,–after we had not only bought old Ludwig, but had paid for him, too! Why, I suppose he gave that damnable masquerade on the strength of having our money,–good English money, mark you, Mr. Vanringham, that we have to squeeze out of honest tax-payers to bribe such, rascals with, only to have them, cheat us by cooking themselves to a crisp! This is annoying, Mr. Vanringham.”
“I don’t entirely follow your Grace–“
“It is not perhaps desirable you should. Yet I give you a key. It is profoundly to be deplored that little Louis de Soyecourt, who cannot draw a contented breath outside of his beloved Paris, should be forced to marry Victoria von Uhm, in his cousin’s place,–yes, for Gaston will arrange that, of course,–and afterward be exiled to a semi-barbarous Noumaria, where he must devote the rest of his existence to heading processions and reviewing troops, and signing proclamations and guzzling beer and sauerkraut. Nay, beyond doubt, Mr. Vanringham, this is deplorable. ‘Tis an appalling condition of affairs: it reminds me of Ovid among the Goths, Mr. Vanringham!”
“I’m to understand, then–?” the valet stammered.
“You are to understand that I am more deeply your debtor than I could desire you to believe; that I am going to tell the Marquis de Soyecourt all which I have told you, though I must reword it for him, as eloquently as may be possible; and that I even now feel myself to be Ciceronic.” The Duke of Ormskirk passed on with a polite nod.
* * * * *
Next day they gossiped busily at Versailles over the sudden disappearance of Louis de Soyecourt. No more was heard of him for months. The mystery was discussed, and by the wits embroidered, and by the imaginative annotated, but it was never solved until the following September.
For it was in September that, upon the threshold of the Golden Pomegranate, at Manneville in Poictesme, Monsieur Louis Quillan paused, and gave the contented little laugh which had of late become habitual with him. “We are en fête to-night, it appears. Has the King, then, by any chance dropped in to supper with us, Nelchen?”
Silently the girl bestowed a provisional pat upon one fold of the white table-cloth and regarded the result with critical approval. All being in blameless order, she moved one of the candlesticks the width of a needle. The table was now garnished to the last resource of the Golden Pomegranate: the napery was snow, the glassware and the cutlery shone with a frosty glitter, and the great bowl of crimson roses afforded the exact splurge of vainglorious color and glow she had designed. Accordingly, being now at leisure, Nelchen now came toward Monsieur Quillan, lifting her lips to his precisely as a child might have done.
“Not quite the King, my Louis. None the less I am sure that Monseigneur is an illustrious person. He arrived not two hours ago–” She told how Monseigneur had come in a coach, very splendid; even his lackeys were resplendent. Monseigneur would stay overnight and would to-morrow push on, to Beauséant. He had talked with her,–a kindly old gentleman, but so stately that all the while she had been the tiniest thought afraid of him. He must be some exalted nobleman, Nelchen considered,–a marquis at the very least.
Meantime diminutive Louis Quillan had led her to the window-seat beneath the corridor, and sat holding one plump trifle of a hand, the, while her speech fluttered bird-like from this topic to that; and be regarded Nelchen Thorn with an abysmal content. The fates, he considered, had been commendably generous to him.
So he leaned back from her a little, laughing gently, and marked what a quaint and eager child it was. He rejoiced that she was beautiful, and triumphed still more to know that even if she had not been beautiful it would have made slight difference to him. The soul of Nelchen was enough. Yet, too, it was desirable this soul should be appropriately clad, that she should have, for instance, these big and lustrous eyes,–plaintive eyes, such as a hamadryad would conceivably possess, since they were beyond doubt the candid and appraising eyes of some woodland creature, and always seemed to find the world not precisely intimidating, perhaps, yet in the ultimate a very curious place where one trod gingerly. Still, this Nelchen was a practical body, prone to laughter,–as in nature, any person would be whose mouth was all rotund and tiny scarlet curves. Why, it was, to a dimple, the mouth which Fran�ois Boucher bestowed on his sleek goddesses! Louis Quillan was sorry for poor Boucher painting away yonder at a noisy garish Versailles, where he would never see that perfect mouth the artist had so often dreamed of. No, not in the sweet flesh at least; lips such as these were unknown at Versailles….
And but four months ago he had fancied himself to be in love with Hélène de Puysange, he remembered; and, by and large, he still considered Hélène a delightful person. Yes, Hélène had made him quite happy last spring: and when they found she was with child, and their first plan failed, she had very adroitly played out their comedy to win back Gaston in time to avoid scandal. Yes, you could not but admire Hélène, yet, even so….
“–and he asked me, oh, so many questions about you, Louis–“
“About me?” said Louis Quillan, blankly. He was all circumspection now.
“About my lover, you stupid person. Monseigneur assumed, somehow, that I would have a lover or two. You perceive that he at least is not a stupid person.” And Nelchen tossed her head, with a touch of the provocative.
Louis Quillan did what seemed advisable. “–and, furthermore, your stupidity is no excuse for rumpling my hair,” said Nelchen, by and by.
“Then you should not pout,” replied Monsieur Quillan. “Sanity is entirely too much to require of any man when you pout. Besides, your eyes are so big and so bright they bewilder one. In common charity you ought to wear spectacles, Nelchen,–in sheer compassion toward mankind.”
“Monseigneur, also, has wonderful eyes, Louis. They are like the stars,–very brilliant and cool and incurious, yet always looking at you as though you were so insignificant that the mere fact of your presuming to exist at all was a trifle interesting.”
“Like the stars!” Louis Quillan had flung back the shutter. It was a tranquil evening in September, with no moon as yet, but with a great multitude of lesser lights overhead. “Incurious like the stars! They do dwarf one, rather. Yet just now I protest to you, infinitesimal man that I am, I half-believe le bon Dieu loves us so utterly that He has kindled all those pretty tapers solely for our diversion. He wishes us to be happy, Nelchen; and so He has given us the big, fruitful, sweet-smelling world to live in, and our astonishing human bodies to live in, with contented hearts, and with no more vain desires, no loneliness–Why, in a word, He has given us each other. Oh, beyond doubt, He loves us, my Nelchen!”
For a long while the girl was silent. Presently she spoke, half-hushed, like one in the presence of sanctity. “I am happy. For these three months I have been more happy than I had thought was permissible on earth. And yet, Louis, you tell me that those stars are worlds perhaps like ours,–think of it, my dear, millions and millions of worlds like ours, and on each world perhaps a million of lovers like us! It is true that among them all no woman loves as I do, for that would be impossible. Yet think of it, mon ami, how inconsiderable a thing is the happiness of one man and of one woman in this immensity! Why, we are less than nothing, you and I! Ohé, I am afraid, hideously afraid, Louis,–for we are such little folk and the universe is so big. And always the storms go about it, and its lightnings thrust at us, and the waters of it are clutching at our feet, and its laws are not to be changed–Oh, it is big and cruel, my dear, and we are adrift in it, we who are so little!”
He again put forth his hand toward her. “What a morbid child it is!” said Louis Quillan. “I can assure you I have resided in this same universe just twice as long as you, and I find that upon the whole the establishment is very creditably conducted. There arrives, to be sure, an occasional tornado, or perhaps an earthquake, each with its incidental inconveniences. On the other hand, there is every evening a lavishly arranged sunset, like gratis fireworks, and each morning (I am credibly informed) a sunrise of which poets and energetic people are pleased to speak highly; while every year spring comes in, like a cosmical upholsterer, and refurnishes the entire place, and makes us glad to live. Nay, I protest to you, this is an excellent world, my Nelchen! and likewise I protest to you that in its history there was never a luckier nor a happier man than I.”
Nelchen considered. “Well,” she generously conceded; “perhaps, after all, the stars are more like diamonds.”
Louis Quillan chuckled. “And since when were you a connoisseur of diamonds, my dear?”
“Of course I have never actually seen any. I would like to, though–yes, Louis, what I would really like would be to have a bushelful or so of diamonds, and to marry a duke–only the duke would have to be you, of course,–and to go to Court, and to have all the fine ladies very jealous of me, and for them to be very much in love with you, and for you not to care a sou for them, of course, and for us both to see the King.” Nelchen paused, quite out of breath after this ambitious career in the imaginative.
“To see the King, indeed!” scoffed little Louis Quillan. “Why, we would see only a very disreputable pockmarked wornout lecher if we did.”
“Still,” she pointed out, “I would like to see a king. Simply because I never have done so before, you conceive.”
“At times, my Nelchen, you are effeminate. Eve ate the apple for that identical reason. Yet what you say is odd, because–do you know?–I once had a friend who was by way of being a sort of king.”
Nelchen gave a squeal of delight. “And you never told me about him! I loathe you.”
Louis Quillan did what seemed advisable. “–and, furthermore, your loathsomeness is no excuse for rumpling my hair,” said Nelchen, by and by.
“But there is so little to tell. His father had married the Grand Duke of Noumaria’s daughter,–over yonder between Silesia and Badenburg, you may remember. And so last spring when the Grand Duke and the Prince were both killed in that horrible fire, my friend quite unexpectedly became a king–oh, king of a mere celery-patch, but still a sort of king. Figure to yourself, Nelchen! they were going to make my poor friend marry the Elector of Badenburg’s daughter,–and Victoria von Uhm has perfection stamped upon her face in all its odious immaculacy,–and force him to devote the rest of his existence to heading processions and reviewing troops, and signing proclamations, and guzzling beer and sauerkraut. Why, he would have been like Ovid among the Goths, my Nelchen!”
“But he could have worn such splendid uniforms!” said Nelchen. “And diamonds!”
“You mercenary wretch!” said he. Louis Quillan then did what seemed advisable; and presently he added, “In any event, the horrified man ran away.”
“That was silly of him,” said Nelchen Thorn. “But where did he run to?”
Louis Quillan considered. “To Paradise,” he at last decided. “And there he found a disengaged angel, who very imprudently lowered herself to the point of marrying him. And so he lived happily ever afterward. And so, till the day of his death, he preached the doctrine that silliness is the supreme wisdom.”
“And he regretted nothing?” Nelchen said, after a meditative while.
Louis Quillan began to laugh. “Oh, yes! at times he profoundly regretted Victoria von Uhm.”
Then Nelchen gave him a surprise, for the girl bent toward him and leaned one hand upon each shoulder. “Diamonds are not all, are they, Louis? I thank you, dear, for telling me of what means so much to you. I can understand, I think, because for a long while I have tried to know and care for everything that concerns you.”
The little man had risen to his feet. “Nelchen–!”
“Hush!” said Nelchen Thorn; “Monseigneur is coming down to his supper.”
It was a person of conspicuous appearance, both by reason of his great height and leanness as well as his extreme age, who now descended the straight stairway leading from the corridor above. At Court they would have told you that the Prince de G�tinais was a trifle insane, but he troubled the Court very little, since he had spent the last twenty years, with brief intermissions, at his ch�teau near Beaujolais, where, as rumor buzzed it, he had fitted out a laboratory, and had devoted his old age to the study of chemistry. “Between my flute and my retorts, my bees and my chocolate-creams,” the Prince was wont to say, “I manage to console myself for the humiliating fact that even Death has forgotten my existence.” For he had a child’s appetite for sweets, and was at this time past eighty, though still well-nigh as active as Antoine de Soyecourt had ever been, even when–a good half-century ago–he had served, with distinction under Louis Quatorze.
To-night the Prince de G�tinais was all in steel-gray, of a metallic lustre, with prodigiously fine ruffles at his throat and wrists. You would have found something spectral in the tall, gaunt old man, for his periwig was heavily powdered, and his deep-wrinkled countenance was of an absolute white, save for the thin, faintly bluish lips and the inklike glitter of his narrowing eyes, as he now regarded the couple waiting hand in hand before him, like children detected in mischief.
Little Louis Quillan had drawn an audible breath at first sight of the newcomer. Monsieur Quillan did not speak, however, but merely waited.
“You have fattened,” the Prince de G�tinais said, at last, “I wish I could fatten. It is incredible that a man who eats pounds of sugar daily should yet remain a skeleton.” His voice was guttural, and a peculiar slur ran through his speech, caused by the loss of his upper front teeth at Ramillies.
Louis Quillan came of a stock not lightly abashed. “I have fattened on a new diet, monsieur,–on happiness. But, ma foi! I am discourteous. Permit me, my father, to present Mademoiselle Nelchen Thorn, who has so far honored me as to consent to become my wife. ‘Nelchen, I present to you my father, the Prince de G�tinais.”
“Oh–?” observed Nelchen, midway in her courtesy.
But the Prince had taken her fingers and he kissed them quite as though they had been the finger-tips of the all-powerful Pompadour at Versailles yonder. “I salute the future Marquise de Soyecourt. You young people will sup with me, then?”
“No, monseigneur, for I am to wait upon the table,” said Nelchen, “and Father is at Sigéan overnight, having the mare shod, and there is only Leon, and, oh, thank you very much indeed, monseigneur, but I had much rather wait on the table.”
The Prince waved his hand. “My valet, mademoiselle, is at your disposal. Vanringham!” he called.
From the corridor above descended a tall red-headed fellow in black. “Monseigneur–?”
“Go!” quickly said Louis de Soyecourt, while the Prince spoke with his valet,–“go, Nelchen, and make yourself even more beautiful if such a thing be possible. He will never resist you, my dear–ah, no, that is out of nature.”
“You will find more plates in the cupboard, Monsieur Vanringham,” remarked Nelchen, as she obediently tripped up the stairway, toward her room in the right wing. “And the knives and forks are in the second drawer.”
So Vanringham laid two covers in discreet silence; then bowed and withdrew by the side door that led to the kitchen. The Prince had seated himself beside the open fire, where he yawned and now looked up with a smile.
“Well, Louis,” said the Prince de G�tinais–“so Monsieur de Puysange and I have run you to earth at last. And I find you have determined to defy me, eh?”
“I trust there is no question of defiance,” Louis de Soyecourt equably returned. “Yet I regret you should have been at pains to follow me, since I still claim the privilege of living out my life in my own fashion.”
“You claim a right which never existed, my little son. It is not demanded of any man that he be happy, whereas it is manifestly necessary for a gentleman to obey his God, his King, and his own conscience without swerving. If he also find time for happiness, well and good; otherwise, he must be unhappy. But, above all, he must intrepidly play out his allotted part in the good God’s scheme of things, and must with due humbleness recognize that the happiness or the unhappiness of any man alive is a trivial consideration as against the fulfilment of this scheme.”
“You and Nelchen are much at one there,” the Marquis lightly replied; “yet, for my part, I fancy that Providence is not particularly interested in who happens to be the next Grand Duke of Noumaria.”
The Prince struck with his hand upon the arm of his chair. “You dare to jest! Louis, your levity is incorrigible. France is beaten, discredited among nations, naked to her enemies. She lies here, between England and Prussia, as in a vise. God summons you, a Frenchman, to reign in Noumaria, and in addition affords you a chance to marry that weathercock of Badenburg’s daughter. Ah, He never spoke more clearly, Louis. And you would reply with a shallow jest! Why, Badenburg and Noumaria just bridge that awkward space between France and Austria. Your accession would confirm the Empress,–Gaston de Puysange has it in her own hand, yonder at Versailles! I tell you it is all planned that France and Austria will combine, Louis! Think of it,–our France on her feet again, mistress of Europe, and every whit of it your doing, Louis,–ah, my boy, my boy, you cannot refuse!”
Thus he ran on in a high, disordered voice, pleading, clutching at his son with a strange new eagerness which now possessed the Prince de G�tinais. He was remembering the France which he had known; not the ignoble, tawdry France of the moment, misruled by women, rakes, confessors, and valets, but the France of his dead Sun King; and it seemed to Louis de Soyecourt that the memory had brought back with it the youth of his father for an instant. Just for a heart-beat, the lank man towered erect, his cheeks pink, and every muscle tense.
Then Louis de Soyecourt shook his head. In England’s interest, as he now knew, Ormskirk had played upon de Soyecourt’s ignorance and his love of pleasure, as an adept plays upon the strings of a violin; but de Soyecourt had his reason, a gigantic reason, for harboring no grudge against the Englishman.
“Frankly, my father, I would not give up Nelchen though all Europe depended upon it. I am a coward, perhaps; but I have my chance of happiness, and I mean to take it. So Cousin Otto is welcome to the duchy. I infinitely prefer Nelchen.”
“Otto! a general in the Prussian army, Frederick’s property, Frederick’s idolater!” The old Prince now passed from an apex of horror to his former pleading tones. “But, then, it is not necessary you give up Nelchen. Ah, no, a certain latitude is permissible in these matters, you understand. She could be made a countess, a marquise,–anything you choose to demand, my Louis. And you could marry Princess Victoria just the same–“
“Were you any other man, monsieur,” said Louis de Soyecourt, “I would, of course, challenge you. As it is, I can only ask you to respect my helplessness. It is very actual helplessness, sir, for Nelchen has been bred in such uncourtly circles as to entertain the most provincial notions about becoming anybody’s whore.”
Now the Prince de G�tinais sank back into the chair. He seemed incredibly old now. “You are right,” he mumbled,–“yes, you are right, Louis. I have talked with her. With her that would be impossible. These bourgeois do not understand the claims of noble birth.”
The younger man had touched him upon the shoulder. “My father,–” he began.
“Yes, I am your father,” said the other, dully, “and it is that which puzzles me. You are my own son, and yet you prefer your happiness to the welfare of France, to the very preservation of France. Never in six centuries has there been a de Soyecourt to do that. God and the King we served … six centuries … and to-day my own son prefers an innkeeper’s daughter…” His voice trailed and slurred like that of one speaking in his sleep, for he was an old man, and by this the flare of his excitement had quite burned out, and weariness clung about his senses like a drug. “I will go back to Beaujolais … to my retorts and my bees … and forget there was never a de Soyecourt in six centuries, save my own son….”
“My father!” Louis de Soyecourt cried, and shook him gently. “Ah, I dare say you are right, in theory. But in practice I cannot give her up. Surely you understand–why, they tell me there was never a more ardent lover than you. They tell me–And you would actually have me relinquish Nelchen, even after you have seen her! Yet remember, monsieur, I love her much as you loved my mother,–that mettlesome little princess whom you stole from the very heart of her court.[Footnote: The curious may find further details of the then Marquis de Soyecourt’s abduction of the Princess Clotilda in the voluminous pages of Hulot, under the year 1708.] Ah, I have heard tales of you, you conceive. And Nelchen means as much to me as once my mother meant to you, remember–She means youth, and happiness, and a tiny space of laughter before I, too, am worm’s-meat, and means a proper appreciation of God’s love for us all, and means everything a man’s mind clutches at when he wakens from some forgotten dream that leaves him weeping with sheer adoration of its beauty. Ho, never was there a kinder father than you, monsieur. You have spoiled me most atrociously, I concede; and after so many years you cannot in decency whip about like this and deny me my very life. Why, my father it is your little Louis who is pleading with you,–and you have never denied me anything! See, now, how I presume upon your weakness. I am actually bullying you into submission–bullying you through your love for me. Eh, we love greatly, we de Soyecourts, and give all for love. Your own life attests that, monsieur. Now, then, let us recognize the fact we are de Soyecourts, you and I. Ah, my father,–“
Thus he babbled on, for the sudden languor of the Prince had alarmed him, and Louis de Soyecourt, to afford him justice, loved his father with a heartier intensity than falls to the portion of most parents. To arouse the semi-conscious man was his one thought. And now he got his reward, for the Prince de G�tinais opened his keen old eyes, a trifle dazedly, and drew a deep breath which shook his large frail body through and through.
“Let us recognize that we are de Soyecourts, you and I,” he repeated, in a new voice. “After all, I cannot drag you to Noumaria by the scruff of your neck like a truant school-boy. Yes, let us recognize the fact that we are de Soyecourts, you and I.”
“Heh, in that event,” said the Marquis, “we must both fall upon our knees forthwith. For look, my father!”
Nelchen Thorn was midway in her descent of the stairs. She wore her simple best. All white it was, and yet the plump shoulders it displayed were not put to shame. Rather must April clouds and the snows of December retire abashed, as lamentably inefficient analogues, the Marquis meditated; and as she paused starry-eyed and a thought afraid, it seemed to him improbable that even the Prince de G�tinais could find it in his heart greatly to blame his son.
“I begin to suspect,” said the Prince, “that I am Jacob of old, and that you are a very young cherub venturing out of Paradise through motives of curiosity. Eh, my dear, let us see what entertainment we can afford you during your visit to earth.” He took her hand and led her to the table.
Vanringham served. Never was any one more blithe than the lean Prince de G�tinais. The latest gossip of Versailles was delivered, with discreet emendations; he laughed gayly; and he ate with an appetite. There was a blight among the cattle hereabouts? How deplorable! witchcraft, beyond doubt. And Louis passed as a piano-tuner?–because there were no pianos in Manneville. Excellent! he had always given Louis credit for a surpassing cleverness; now it was demonstrated. In fine, the Prince de G�tinais became so jovial that Nelchen was quite at ease, and Louis de Soyecourt became vaguely alarmed. He knew his father, and for the Prince to yield thus facilely was incredible. Still, his father had seen Nelchen, had talked with Nelchen….
Now the Prince rose. “Fresh glasses, Vanringham,” he ordered; and then: “I give you a toast. Through desire of love and happiness, you young people have stolen a march on me. Eh, I am not Sgarnarelle of the comedy! therefore, I drink cheerfully to love and happiness, I consider Louis is not in the right, but I know that he is wise, my daughter, as concerns his soul’s health, in clinging to you rather than to a tinsel crown. Of Fate I have demanded–like Sgarnarelle of the comedy,–prosaic equity and common-sense; of Fate he has in turn demanded happiness; and Fate will at her convenience decide between us. Meantime I drink to love and happiness, since I, too, remember. I know better than to argue with Louis, you observe, my Nelchen; we de Soyecourts are not lightly severed from any notion we may have taken up. In consequence I drink to your love and happiness!”
They drank. “To your love, my son,” said the Prince de G�tinais,–“to the true love of a de Soyecourt.” And afterward he laughingly drank: “To your happiness, my daughter,–to your eternal happiness.”
Nelchen sipped. The two men stood with drained glasses. Now on a sudden the Prince de G�tinais groaned and clutched his breast.
“I was always a glutton,” he said, hoarsely. “I should have been more moderate–I am faint–“
“Salts are the best thing in the world,” said Nelchen, with fine readiness. She was half-way up the stairs. “A moment, monseigneur,–a moment, and I fetch salts.” Nelchen Thorn had disappeared into her room.
The Prince sat drumming upon the table with his long white fingers. He had waved the Marquis and Vanringham aside. “A passing weakness,–I am not adamant,” he had said, half-peevishly.
“Then I prescribe another glass of this really excellent wine,” laughed little Louis de Soyecourt. At heart he was not merry, and his own unreasoning nervousness irritated him, for it seemed to the Marquis, quite irrationally, that the atmosphere of the cheery room was, without forerunnership, become tense and expectant, and was now quiet with much the hush which precedes the bursting of a thunder-storm. And accordingly he laughed.
“I prescribe another glass, monsieur,” said he. “Eh, that is the true panacea for faintness–for every ill. Come, we will drink to the most beautiful woman in Poictesme–nay, I am too modest,–to the most beautiful woman in France, in Europe, in the whole universe! Feriam sidera, my father! and confound all mealy-mouthed reticence, for you have both seen her. Confess, am I not a lucky man? Come, Vanringham, too, shall drink. No glasses? Take Nelchen’s, then. Come, you fortunate rascal, you shall drink to the bride from the bride’s half-emptied glass. To the most beautiful woman–Why, what the devil–?”
Vanringham had blurted out an odd, unhuman sound. His extended hand shook and jerked, as if in irresolution, and presently struck the proffered glass from de Soyecourt’s grasp. You heard the tiny crash, very audible in the stillness, and afterward the irregular drumming of the old Prince’s finger-tips. He had not raised his head, had not moved.
Louis de Soyecourt came to him, without speaking, and placed one hand under his father’s chin, and lifted the Prince’s countenance, like a dead weight, toward his own. Thus the two men regarded each the other. Their silence was rather horrible.
“It was not in vain that I dabbled with chemistry all these years,” said the guttural voice of the Prince de G�tinais, “Yes, the child is dead by this. Let us recognize the fact we are de Soyecourts, you and I.”
But Louis de Soyecourt had flung aside the passive, wrinkled face, and then, with a straining gesture, wiped the fingers that had touched it upon the sleeve of his left arm. He turned to the stairway. His hand grasped the newelpost and gripped it so firmly that he seemed less to walk than by one despairing effort to lift an inert body to the first step. He ascended slowly, with a queer shamble, and disappeared into Nelchen’s room.
“What next, monseigneur?” said Vanringham, half-whispering.
“Why, next,” said the Prince de G�tinais, “I imagine that he will kill us both. Meantime, as Louis says, the wine is really excellent. So you may refill my glass, my man, and restore to me my vial of little tablets”….
He was selecting a bonbon from the comfit-dish when his son returned into the apartment. Very tenderly Louis de Soyecourt laid his burden upon a settle, and then drew the older man toward it. You noted first how the thing lacked weight: a flower snapped from its stalk could hardly have seemed more fragile. The loosened hair strained toward the floor and seemed to have sucked all color from the thing to inform that thick hair’s insolent glory; the tint of Nelchen’s lips was less sprightly, and for the splendor of her eyes Death had substituted a conscientious copy in crayons: otherwise there was no change; otherwise she seemed to lie there and muse on something remote and curious, yet quite as she would have wished it to be.
“See, my father,” Louis de Soyecourt said, “she was only a child, more little even than I. Never in her brief life had she wronged any one,–never, I believe, had she known an unkind thought. Always she laughed, you understand–Oh, my father, is it not pitiable that Nelchen will never laugh any more?”
“I entreat of God to have mercy upon her soul,” said the old Prince de G�tinais. “I entreat of God that the soul of her murderer may dwell eternally in the nethermost pit of hell.”
“I would cry amen,” Louis de Soyecourt said, “if I could any longer believe in God.”
The Prince turned toward him. “And will you kill me now, Louis?”
“I cannot,” said the other. “Is it not an excellent jest that I should be your son and still be human? Yet as for your instrument, your cunning butler–Come, Vanringham!” he barked. “We are unarmed. Come, tall man, for I who am well-nigh a dwarf now mean to kill you with my naked hands.”
“Vanringham!” The Prince leaped forward. “Behind me, Vanringham!” As the valet ran to him the old Prince de G�tinais caught a knife from the table and buried it to the handle in Vanringham’s breast. The lackey coughed, choked, clutched his assassin by each shoulder; thus he stood with a bewildered face, shuddering visibly, every muscle twitching. Suddenly he shrieked, with an odd, gurgling noise, and his grip relaxed, and Francis Vanringham seemed to crumple among his garments, so that he shrank rather than fell to the floor. His hands stretched forward, his fingers spreading and for a moment writhing in agony, and then he lay quite still.
“You progress, my father,” said Louis de Soyecourt, quietly. “And what new infamy may I now look for?”
“A valet!” said the Prince. “You would have fought with him–a valet! He topped you by six inches. And the man was desperate. Your life was in danger. And your life is valuable.”
“I have earlier perceived, my father, that you prize human life very highly.”
The Prince de G�tinais struck sharply upon the table. “I prize the welfare of France. To secure this it is necessary that you and no other reign in Noumaria. But for the girl you would have yielded just now. So to the welfare of France I sacrifice the knave at my feet, the child yonder, and my own soul. Let us remember that we are de Soyecourts, you and I.”
“Rather I see in you,” began the younger man, “a fiend. I see in you a far ignobler Judas–“
“And I see in you the savior of France. Nay, let us remember that we are de Soyecourts, you and I. And for six centuries it has always been our first duty to serve France. You behold only a man and a woman assassinated; I behold thousands of men preserved from death, many thousands of women rescued from hunger and degradation. I have sinned, and grievously; ages of torment may not purge my infamy; yet I swear it is well done!”
“And I–?” the little Marquis said.
“Why, your heart is slain, my son, for you loved this girl as I loved your mother, and now you can nevermore quite believe in the love God bears for us all; and my soul is damned irretrievably: but we are de Soyecourts, you and I, and accordingly we rejoice and drink to France, to the true love of a de Soyecourt! to France preserved! to France still mighty among her peers!”
Louis de Soyecourt stood quite motionless. Only his eyes roved toward his father, then to the body that had been Nelchen’s. He began to laugh as he caught up his glass. “You have conquered. What else have I to live for now? To France, you devil!”
“To France, my son!” The glasses clinked. “To the true love of a de Soyecourt!”
And immediately the Prince de G�tinais fell at his son’s feet. “You will go into Noumaria?”
“What does that matter now?” the other wearily said. “Yes, I suppose so. Get up, you devil!”
But the Prince de G�tinais detained him, with hands like ice. “Then we preserve France, you and I! We are both damned, I think, but it is worth while, Louis. In hell we may remember that it was well worth while. I have slain your very soul, my dear son, but that does not matter: France is saved.” The old man still knelt, looking upward. “Yes, and you must forgive me, my son! For, see, I yield you what reparation I may. See, Louis,–I was chemist enough for two. Wine of my own vintage I have tasted, of the brave vintage which now revives all France. And I swear to you the child did not suffer, Louis, not–not much. See, Louis! she did not suffer.” A convulsion tore at and shook the aged body, and twitched awry the mouth that had smiled so resolutely. Thus the Prince died.
Presently Louis de Soyecourt knelt and caught up the wrinkled face between both hands. “My father–!” said Louis de Soyecourt. Afterward he kissed the dead lips tenderly. “Teach me how to live, my father,” said Louis de Soyecourt, “for I begin to comprehend–in part I comprehend.” Throughout the moment Nelchen Thorn was forgotten: and to himself he too seemed to be fashioned of heroic stuff.