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he fell, and had seen him in his litter after he was carried from the field of battle. He could, therefore, have said at once that he had seen him alive after the battle was over, but he had no wish to deceive Madame de Lescure; and at the moment of which we are speaking, he most undoubtedly believed that the wound had been fatal, and that her husband was no more.
A musket-ball had entered just below the eye, and making its way downwards, had lodged itself in the back of his neck. A surgeon had examined the wound before Father Jerome left the army; and though he had not positively said that it would prove mortal, he had spoken so unfavourably of the case, as to make all those who heard him believe that it would be so.
Had Father Jerome expected to see the two nearest and dearest relations of the man whom he thought to be now no more, he would have prepared himself for the difficult task which he would have had to undertake, and no one would have been better able to go through it with feeling, delicacy, and firmness; but such was not the case. The sudden apparition of the wife and sister of his friend seemed to him to be supernatural; and though he at once made up his mind to give no false hope, he could not so quickly decide in what way he should impart the sad news which he had to tell.
Madame de Lescure was trembling so violently as she asked the question, on the answer to which her fate depended, that the priest observed it, and he turned to the altar at the end of the chapel, to fetch a rude chair which stood there for the use of the officiating clergyman, and which was the only moveable seat in the chapel; and whilst doing so, he was enabled to collect his thoughts, so as to answer not quite so much at random as he otherwise must have done.
"Sit down, Madame de Lescure," said he, "sit down, Mademoiselle," and he made the latter sit down on the altar step. "You are fatigued, and you have agitated yourself too intensely."
"Why don't you speak, Father Jerome? Why don't you tell me at once--is he alive?" And then she added, almost screaming in her agitation, "For God's sake, Sir, don't keep a wretched, miserable woman in suspense!"
The priest gazed for a moment at the unfortunate lady. She had, at his bidding sunk upon the chair, but she could hardly be said to be seated, as, with her knees bent under her, and her hands clasped, she gazed up into his face. She felt that her husband was dead but still, till the fatal word was spoken, there was hope enough within her heart to feed the agony of doubt which was tormenting her. Marie had hitherto said nothing; she had made her own grief subservient to that of her brother's wife, and, though hardly less anxious, she was less agitated than the other.
"I cannot tell you anything with certainty, Madame," said the priest at last. "I cannot--"
"Then you do not know that he is dead! Then there is, at any rate, some room for hope!" said she, not allowing him to finish what he was about to say; and she sank back in the chair, and relieved her overwrought mind with a flood of tears.
The priest was firmly convinced that de Lescure was at this moment numbered among the dead, and his conscience forbad him to relieve himself of his dreadful task, by allowing her to entertain a false hope; he had still, therefore, to say the words which he found it so difficult to utter.
He sat down beside Marie on the low step of the altar, immediately opposite to Madame de Lescure; he still had on him the vestments of his holy office, though they were much worn, shabby, and soiled, and the cap, which formed a part of the priest's dress when officiating, was on his head; his shoes were so worn and tattered, that they were nearly falling from his feet, and the stockings, which displayed the shape of his huge legs, were so patched and darned with worsteds of different colours, as to have made them more fitting for a mountebank than a. priest. At the present moment, there was no one likely to notice his costume; but had there been an observer there, it would have told him a tale, easy to be read, of the sufferings which had been endured by this brave and faithful servant of the King.
"When God, Madame de Lescure," said he, speaking in a kind, peculiarly solemn tone of voice, "when God called upon you to be the wife of him who has been to you so affectionate a husband, He vouchsafed to you higher blessings, but at the same time imposed on you sterner duties than those which women in general are called upon to bear. You have enjoyed the blessings, and if I know your character, you will not shrink from the duties."
"I will shrink from nothing, Father Jerome," said she. "God's will be done! I will endeavour to bear the burden which His Providence lays on me; but I have all a woman's weakness, and all a woman's fears."
"He who has given strength and courage to so many of His people in these afflicted days, will also give it to you; He will enable you to bear the weight of His hand, which in chastising, blesses us, which in punishing us here, will render us fit for unutterable joys hereafter." He paused a moment; but as neither of the women could now speak through their tears, he went on: "I was close to your husband when he fell, and as his eyes closed on the battlefield, they rested on the blessed emblem of his redemption."
"He is dead then!" said she, jumping from her chair, and struggling with the sobs which nearly choked her. "Oh Sir, if you have the mercy which a man should feel for a wretched woman, tell me at least the truth," and as she spoke, she threw herself on her knees before him.
Father Jerome certainly lacked no mercy, and usually speaking, he lacked no firmness; but now he nearly felt himself overcome. "You must compose yourself before I can speak calmly to you, my daughter--before you can even understand what I shall say to you. I will not even speak to you till you are again seated, and then I will tell you everything. There--remember now, I will tell you everything as it happened, and, as far as I know, all that did happen. You must summon up your courage, my children, and show yourself worthy to have been the wife and sister of that great man whom you loved so well."
"He is dead!" said Marie, speaking for the first time, and almost in a whisper. "I know now that it is so," and she threw herself into her sister's lap, and embraced her knees.
The priest did not contradict her, but commenced a narrative, which he intended to convey to his listeners exactly the same impressions which were on his own mind. In this, however, he failed. He told them that de Lescure had been carried senseless from the field, and had been taken by Henri in a litter on the road towards St. Florent; that he himself had been present when the surgeon expressed an almost fatal opinion respecting the wound, but that the wounded man was still alive when he last saw him, and that, since then, he had heard no certain news respecting him. Even this statement, which the priest was unable to make without many interruptions, acted rather as a relief than otherwise to Madame de Lescure. She might, at any rate, see her husband again; and it was still possible that both the surgeon and Father Jerome might be wrong. As soon as he had told his tale, she, forgetting her fatigue, and the difficulties which surrounded her, wanted immediately to resume her journey, and Father Jerome was equally anxious to learn how she and Marie had come so far, and how they intended to proceed.
Chapeau had in the mean time called on the old priest, and though he had found it almost impossible to make him understand what he wanted, or who the ladies were of whom he spoke, he had learnt that Father Jerome was in the chapel, and was as much gratified as he was surprised to hear it. He had then hurried back, and though he had not put himself forward during the scene which has been just described, he had heard what had passed.
He now explained to Father Jerome the way in which they had left Chatillon, and journeyed on horseback from St. Laurent, and declared, at the same time with much truth, that it was quite impossible for them to proceed farther on their way that night.
"The poor brutes are dead beat," said he. "All the spurs in Poitou wouldn't get them on a league. The night will be pitch dark, too, and, above all, Madame and Mademoiselle would be killed. They have already been on horseback all day--and so they were yesterday: it is quite clear they must rest here tonight."
Chapeau's arguments against their farther progress were conclusive, and as there was no better shelter to which to take them, Father Jerome led them into the little glebe. "There is but one bed left in the place," said he, as he entered the gate, "but you will be very welcome to that; you will find it poor enough; Father Bernard has shared it with me for the last two nights. We poor Curés have not many luxuries to offer to our friends now."
Madame de Lescure tried to utter some kind of protest that she would not turn the poor old man out of his only bed, but she succeeded badly in the attempt, for her heart was sad within her, and she hardly knew what she was saying. They all followed Father Jerome out of the chapel, of which he locked the door, and putting the key into his pocket, strode into the humble dwelling opposite.
They found Father Bernard seated over a low wood fire, in a small sitting-room, in which the smell arising from the burning of damp sticks was very prevalent. There was one small rickety table in the middle of the room, and one other chair besides that occupied by the host, and with these articles alone the room was furnished. That there was no carpet in a clergyman's house in Poitou was not remarkable; indeed it would have been very remarkable if there had been one; but the total want of any of the usual comforts of civilized life struck even Madame de Lescure, unsuited as she was at the present moment to take notice of such things.
The old man did not rise, but stared at them somewhat wildly: he was nearly doting from age; and fear, poverty, and sorrow, added to his many years, had now weighed him down almost to idiotcy. Father Jerome did the honours of the house; he made Madame de Lescure sit down on the chair, and then bustling into the kitchen, brought out a three legged stool, which he wiped with the sleeve of his coat, and offered to Marie. Then he took Chapeau to the door, and whispered to him some secret communication with reference to supper; in fact, he had to confess that there was nothing in the house but bread, and but little of that. That neither he or Father Bernard had a sou piece between them, and that unless Chapeau had money, and could go as far as the village and purchase eggs, they would all have to go supperless to bed. Chapeau luckily was provided, and started at once to forage for the party, and Father Jerome returned into the room relieved from a heavy weight.
"My dear old friend here," said he, laying his hand on the old man's arm, "has not much to offer you; but I am sure you are welcome to what -he has. There is not a heart in all La Vendée beats truer to his sovereign than his. Old age, misfortune, and persecution, have lain a heavy hand on him lately, but his heart still warms to the cause. Does it not my old friend?" And Father Jerome looked kindly into his face,
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