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- Stray Pearls - 30/67 -
But on the way home was my opportunity, and I asked what my half- brother really thought of M. d'Aubepine.
'He is a fine young man,' he said.
'You have told me that before; but what hopes are there for his wife?'
'Poor little thing,' returned Solivet.
'Can he help loving her?' I said
'Alas! my sister, he has been in a bad school, and has before him an example--of courage, it is true, but not precisely of conjugal affection.'
'Is it true, then,' I asked, 'that the Princess of Conde is kept utterly in the background in spite of her mother-in-law, and that the Prince publishes his dislike to her?'
'Perfectly true,' said my brother. 'When a hero, adored by his officers, actually declares that the only thing he does not wish to see in France is his wife, what can you expect of them? Even some who really love their wives bade them remain at home, and will steal away to see them with a certain shame; and for Aubepine, he is only too proud to resemble the Prince in being married against his will to a little half-deformed child, who is to be avoided.'
I cried out at this, and demanded whether my little sister-in-law could possibly be thus described. He owned that she was incredibly improved, and begged my pardon and hers, saying that he was only repeating what Aubepine either believed or pretended to believe her to be.
'If I could only speak with him!' I said. 'For my husband's sake I used to have some influence with him. I would give the world to meet him before he sees the intendant and his wife. Could we contrive it?'
In a few moments we had settled it. Happily we were both in full dress, in case friends should have dropped in on us. Both of us had the entree at Madame de Longueville's, and it would be quite correct to pay her our compliments on the return of her brother.
I believe Solivet a little questioned whether one so headstrong had not better be left to himself, but he allowed that no one had ever done as much with Armand d'Aubepine as my husband and myself, and when he heard my urgent wish to forestall the intendant, whose wife was Cecile's old tyrant, Mademoiselle de Gringrimeau, he thought it worth the venture. He said I was a warlike Gildippe still, and that he would stand by me.
So the coachman received his orders; we fell in among the long line of carriages, and in due time made our way to the salon, where Madame le Duchesse de Longueville sat enthroned in all the glory of her fair hair and beautiful complexion, toying with her fan as she conversed with the Prince of Marsillac, the most favoured at that time of a whole troop of admirers and devoted slaves. She was not an intellectual woman herself, but she had beyond all others who I ever saw the power of leading captive the very ablest men.
The hero had not yet come from the palace, and having made our compliments, and received a gracious smile and nod, we stood aside, waiting and conversing with others, and in some anxiety lest the Prince should be detained at the Louvre. However, before long he came, and his keen eagle face, and the stars on his breast, flashed on us, as he returned the greetings of one group after another in his own peculiar manner, haughty, and yet not without a certain charm.
A troop of officers followed, mingling with the gay crowd of ladies and gentlemen, and among them Solivet pointed out the Count d'Aubepine. I should not otherwise have known him, so much was he altered in these six years, changing him from youth to manhood. His hair was much darker, he had a small pointed beard, and the childish contour of cheek and chin had passed away, and he was altogether developed, but there was something that did not reassure me. He seemed to have lost, with his boyhood, that individuality which we had once loved, and to have passed into an ordinary officer, like all the rest of the gay, dashing, handsome, but often hardened-looking men, who were enjoying their triumphant return into ladies' society.
Solivet had accosted him. I saw his eye glance anxiously round, then he seemed reassured, and came towards me with some eagerness, greeting me with some compliment, I know not what, on my appearance; but I cut this as short as I could be saying: 'Know you, Monsieur, why I am here? I am come to ask you to bestow a little half-hour on one who is longing to see you.'
'Madame, I am desolated to refuse you, but, you see, I am in attendance, and on duty; I am not the master!'
However, my brother observed that he would not be required for at least two hours, and his movements would be quite free until the party broke up. And after a little importunity, I actually carried him off, holding up his hands and declaring that he could not withstand Madame de Bellaise, so as to cast over his concession an air of gallantry without which I believe his vanity would never have yielded.
However, I had my hopes; I would not blame him when I had such an advantage over him as having him shut up with me in my coach, for we left Solivet to make his excuses, and as we told him, for a hostage, to come back when I released my prisoner. I trusted more to the effect of the sight of my sweet little Cecile than to any exhortation in my power; indeed, I thought I had better keep him in good humour by listening amiably to his explanation of the great favour that he was doing me in coming to see Madame, my mother, and how indispensable he was to M. le Prince.
He must have known what I was carrying him to see, but he did not choose to show that he did, and when he gave me his arm and I took him into the pansy salon, there sat my mother with my sister, two or three old friends who had come to congratulate her, and to see M. de Solivet, and Cecile, who had not been able to persuade herself to send her children to bed, though she knew not of my audacious enterprises.
I saw that he did not know her in the least, as he advanced to my mother, as the lady of the house, and in one moment I recollected how my grandfather had fallen in love with my grandmother without knowing she was his life. Cecile, crimson all over, with her children beside her, sprang forward, her heart telling her who he was. 'Ah, Monsieur, embrace your son,' she murmured. And little Armantine and Maurice, as they had been tutored, made their pretty reverences, and said, 'Welcome, my papa.'
He really was quite touched. There was something, too, in the surroundings which was sympathetic. He embraced them all, and evidently looked at his wife with amazement, sitting down at last beside her with his little boy upon his knee.
We drew to the farther end of the room that they might be unembarrassed. Annora was indignant that we did not leave them alone, but I thought he wanted a certain check upon him, and that it was good for him to be in the presence of persons who expected him to be delighted to see his wife and children.
I believe that that quarter of an hour was actual pain to Cecile from the very overflowing rush of felicity. To have her husband seated beside her, with his son upon his knee, had been the dream and prayer of her life for six years, and now that it was gratified the very intensity of her hopes and fears choked her, made her stammer and answer at random, when a woman without her depth of affection might have put out all kinds of arts to win and detain him.
After a time he put the child down, but still held his hand, came up to the rest of the company and mingled with it. I could have wished they had been younger and more fashionable, instead of a poor old Scottish cavalier and his wife, my mother's old contemporary Madame de Delincourt, and a couple of officers waiting for Solivet. Annora was the only young brilliant creature there, and she had much too low an opinion of M. d'Aubepine to have a word to say to him, and continued to converse in English with old Sir Andrew Macniven about the campaigns of the Marquis of Montrose, both of them hurling out barbarous names that were enough to drive civilized ears out of the room.
Our unwilling guest behaved with tolerably good grace, and presently made his excuse to my mother and me, promising immediately to send back Solivet to his friends. His wife went with him into the outer room, and when in a few minutes Armantine ran back to call me---
'Papa is gone, and mama is crying,' she said.
It was true, but they were tears of joy. Cecile threw herself on my bosom perfectly overwhelmed with happiness, poor little thing, declaring that she owed it all to me, and that though he could not remain now, he had promised that she should hear from him. He was enchanted with his children; indeed, how could he help it? And she would have kept me up all night, discussing every hair of his moustache, every tone in the few words he had spoken to her. When at last I parted from her I could not help being very glad. Was the victory indeed won, and would my Philippe's sister become a happy wife?
I trusted that now he had seen her he would be armed against Madame Croquelebois, who you will remember had been his grandmother's dame de compagnie, and a sort of governess to him. She had petted him as much as she had afterwards tyrannized over his poor little wife, and might still retain much influence over him, which she was sure to exert against me. But at any rate he could not doubt of his wife's adoration for him.
We waited in hope. We heard of the Prince in attendance on the Queen-Regent, and we knew his aide-de-camp could not be spared, and we went on expecting all the morning and all the evening, assuring Cecile that military duty was inexorable, all the time that we were boiling over with indignation.
My mother was quite as angry as we were, and from her age and position could be more effective. She met M. d'Aubepine one evening at the Louvre, and took him to task, demanding when his wife was to hear from him, and fairly putting him out of countenance in the presence of the Queen of England. She came home triumphant at what she had done, and raised our hopes again, but in fact, though it impelled him to action, there was now mortified vanity added to indifference and impatience of the yoke.
There was a letter the next day. Half an hour after receiving it I
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