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- Stray Pearls - 10/67 -
I had no time for weeping then. I sent for the first physician in Nancy, and offered him any sum in the world to accompany me; I had to make almost wild efforts to procure a horse, and at last had to force one from the governor by my importunities. I collected wine and cordials, and whatever could be of service, and after his first outburst my young brother-in-law helped me in a way I can never forget. No doubt the pestiferous air caused by the horrible carnage of Freiburg had poisoned the wound. As soon as possible my husband was removed; but the mischief had been already done; the wound was in a bad state, fever had set in, and though he struggled on stage after stage, declaring that he should be well when he saw me, the agony had been such on the last day that they barely got him to Brisach, and he there became delirious, so that M. de Solivet decided on remaining with him, while the Count came on to fetch me. He had ridden ever since four o'clock in the morning, and yet was ready to set out again as soon as my preparations were complete. Oh, I can never overlook what he was to me on that journey!
Hope kept us up through that dismal country--the path of war, where instead of harvest on the August day we saw down-trodden, half-burned wheat fields, where a few wretched creatures were trying to glean a few ears of wheat. Each village we passed showed only blackened walls, save where at intervals a farmhouse had been repaired to serve as an estafette for couriers from the French army. The desolation of the scene seemed to impress itself on my soul, and destroy the hopes with which I had set forth; but on and on we went, till the walls of Brisach rose before us.
He was in the governor's quarters, and only at the door, I perceived the M. d'Aubepine had much doubted whether we should find him alive. However, that one consolation was mine. He knew me; he smiled again on me; he called me by all his fondest names; he said that now he could rest. For twenty-four hours we really thought that joy was working a cure. Alas! then he grew worse again, and when the pain left him, mortification had set in, and we could only send for a priest to administer the last Sacraments.
I am an old woman now, and what was then the cruelest anguish touches me with pleasure when I think how he called me his guardian angel, and thanked me for having been his shield from temptation, placing his son in my sole charge, and commending his sister and his old uncle to me--his poor little sister whose lot seemed to grieve him so much. He talked to the Count, who wept, tore his hair, and made promises, which he really then intended to execute, and which at least comforted my Philippe.
The good priest who attended him said, he had never seen anything more edifying or beautiful, and that he had never heard the confession of a military man showing a purer heart, more full of holy love, trust, and penitence. There was a great peace upon us all, as his life ebbed away, and even the Count stood silent and awestruck. They took me away at last. I remember nothing but the priest telling me that my husband was in Paradise.
I felt as if it were all a dream, and when presently my brother came and took my hand, I cried out: 'Oh, wake me! Wake me!' And when he burst into tears I asked what he meant.
Looking back now I can see how very kind he was to me, though I made little return, being altogether bewildered by the sudden strangeness of my first grief. Poor M. de Solivet! he must have had a heavy charge for Armand d'Aubepine was altogether frantic with grief, and did nothing to help him, while I could not weep, and sat like a statue, hardly knowing what they said to me. Nay, when the tidings came that my father had been killed in the battle of Marston Moor three weeks before, I was too dull and dead to grieve. Eustace had written to my husband in order that he might prepare me; I opened the letter, and all that I can remember feeling was that I had no one to shield me.
I had but one wish and sense of duty at that moment, namely, to carry home those dear remains to the resting-place of his father in Anjou, where I hope myself to rest. It was of no use to tell me that all places would be alike to my Philippe when we should awake on the Resurrection day. I was past reason, and was possessed with a feeling that I would be sacrilege to leave him among the countless unnamed graves of the wounded who, like him, had struggled as far as Brisach to die. I fancied I should not be able to find him, and, besides, it was an enemy's country! I believe opposition made me talk wildly and terrify my brother; at any rate, he swore to me that the thing should be done, if only I would return to Nancy and to my child. I fancied, most unjustly, that this was meant to deceive me, and get me out of the way while they buried him whom I loved so much, and I refused to stir without the coffin.
How my brother contrived it, I do not know, but the thing was done, and though I was but a cart that carried the coffin to Nancy, I was pacified.
At Nancy he arranged matters more suitably. Here M. d'Aubepine, in floods of tears, took leave of me to return to the army, and M. de Solivet, whose wound disabled him from active service, undertook to escort me and my precious to Anjou.
It was a long tedious journey, and my heart beats with gratitude to him when I think what he undertook for me, and how dreary it must have been for him, while I was too dead and dull to thank him, though I hope my love and confidence evinced my gratitude in after life.
My dearest went first in a hearse drawn by mules, as was also my large carriage,--that which we had so joyously bought together, saying it would be like a kind of tent on our travels. I traveled in it with my child and my women, and M. de Solivet rode with our men- servants. Our pace was too slow for the fatigue to be too much for him, and he always preceded me to every place where we halted to eat, or where we lodged for the night, and had everything ready without a thought or a word being needful from me. He always stood ready to give me his arm to take me to hear mass before we set out each day. The perfect calm, and the quiet moving on, began to do me good. I felt as if the journey had always been going on, and only wished it were endless, for when it was over I should feel my desolation, and have no more to do for my Philippe. But I began to respond to my poor boy's caresses and playfulness a little more; I was not so short and maussade with my women or with my good brother, and I tried to pray at mass. My brother has since told me that he never felt more relieved in his life than once when he made little Gaspard bring me some blue corn-flowers and wheat, which reminded me of my English home, so that I began to weep so profusely, that he carried away the poor frightened child, and left me to Tryphena.
One afternoon at a little village there was a look of festival; the bells were ringing, everybody was hurrying to the church, and when we stopped at the door of the inn my brother came to the carriage-window and said he was afraid that we should not find it easy to proceed at once, for a mission priest was holding a station, and no one seemed able to attend to anything else.
'He is a true saint! he is just about to preach,' said the landlady, who had come out with her gayest apron, her whitest cap, and all her gold chains. 'Ah! the poor lady, it would do her heart good to hear him preach; and by that time the roast would be ready--an admirable piece of venison, sent for the occasion. There he is, the blessed man!'
And as I had just alighted from the carriage, for our mules had made a double stage and could not go farther, I saw coming from the prebytere three or four priests, with the sexton and the serving boys. One of them, a spare thin man, with a little bronze crucifix in his hand, paused as he saw the hearse drawn up, clasped his hands in prayer, and then lifted them in benediction of him who lay within. I saw his face, and there was in it an indescribable heavenly sweetness and pity which made me say to my brother: 'I must go and hear him.'
My brother was so glad to hear me express any wish, that I believe, if I had asked to go and dance on the village green, he would almost have permitted it; and leaving my little one to play in the garden under Tryphena's care, he gave me his arm, and we went into the church, crowded--crowded so that we could hardly find room; but my deep mourning made the good people respectfully make place for us and give us chairs.
Ah! that sermon! I cannot tell you it in detail; I only know that it gave the strongest sense of healing balm to my sore heart, and seemed in a wonderful way to lift me up into the atmosphere where my Philippe was gone, making me feel that what kept me so far--far from him was not death, nor his coffin, but my own thick husk of sin and worldliness. Much more there was, which seems now to have grown into my very soul; and by the time it was over I was weeping tears no longer bitter, and feeling nothing so much as the need to speak to that priest.
M. de Solivet promised that I should, but we had long to wait, for the saintly Abbe de Paul would not postpone the poor to the rich; nor could my grief claim the precedence, for I was not the only broken- hearted young widow in France, nor even in that little village.
I cannot be grateful enough to my brother that he put up with all the inconveniences of sleeping at this little village, that I might carry out what he though a mere woman's enthusiastic fancy: but in truth it was everything to me. After vespers the holy man was able to give me an hour in the church, and verily it was the opening of new life to me. Since my light had been taken from me, all had been utter desolate darkness before me. He put a fresh light before me, which now, after fifty years, I know to have been the dawn of better sunshine than even that which had brightened my youth--and I thank my good God, who has never let me entirely lose sight of it.
Very faint, almost disappointing, it seemed to me then. I came away from my interview feeling as if it had been vain to think there could be any balm for a crushed heart, and yet when I awoke the next morning, and dressed myself to hear mass before resuming my journey, it was with the sense that there I should meet a friend and comforter. And when I looked at my little son, it was not only with dreary passionate pity for the unconscious orphan, but with a growing purpose to bring him up as his father's special charge,--nay, as that from even a greater and nearer than my Philippe.
While, as we journeyed on, I gradually dwelt less on how piteous my arrival would be for myself, and thought more and more of its sadness for the poor old Marquis who had loved his nephew so much, till, instead of merely fearing to reach Nid de Merle, I began to look forward to it, and consider how to comfort the poor old man; for had not my husband begged me to be the staff of his old age, and to fill a daughter's place to him?
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