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- WHITE LIES - 6/77 -
chaplets hung up. Her daughters had been there before her.
She knelt and prayed many hours for her husband's soul; then she rose and hung up one chaplet and came slowly away with the other in her hand. At the gate of the park, Josephine met her with tender anxiety in her sapphire eyes, and wreathed her arms round her, and whispered, "But you have your children still."
The baroness kissed her and they came towards the house together, the baroness leaning gently on her daughter's elbow.
Between the park and the angle of the chateau was a small plot of turf called at Beaurepaire the Pleasance, a name that had descended along with other traditions; and in the centre of this Pleasance, or Pleasaunce, stood a wonderful oak-tree. Its circumference was thirty-four feet. The baroness came to this ancient tree, and hung her chaplet on a mutilated limb called the "knights' bough."
The sun was setting tranquil and red; a broad ruby streak lingered on the deep green leaves of the prodigious oak. The baroness looked at it awhile in silence.
Then she spoke slowly to it and said, "You were here before us: you will be here when we are gone."
A spasm crossed Josephine's face, but she said nothing at the time. And so they went in together.
Now as this tree was a feat of nature, and, above all, played a curious part in our story, I will ask you to stay a few minutes and look at it, while I say what was known about it; not the thousandth part of what it could have told, if trees could speak as well as breathe.
The baroness did not exaggerate; the tree was far older than even this ancient family. They possessed among other archives a manuscript written by a monk, a son of the house, about four hundred years before our story, and containing many of the oral traditions about this tree that had come down to him from remote antiquity. According to this authority, the first Baron of Beaurepaire had pitched his tent under a fair oak-tree that stood prope rivum, near a brook. His grandson built a square tower hard by, and dug a moat that enclosed both tree and tower, and received the waters of the brook aforesaid.
At this time the tree seems only to have been remarked for its height. But, a century and a half before the monk wrote, it had become famous in all the district for its girth, and in the monk's own day had ceased to grow; but not begun to decay. The mutilated arm I have mentioned was once a long sturdy bough, worn smooth as velvet in one part from a curious cause: it ran about as high above the ground as a full-sized horse, and the knights and squires used to be forever vaulting upon it, the former in armor; the monk, when a boy, had seen them do it a thousand times. This bough broke in two, 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 as a cabbage above the soil, and stood at the mercy of the first hare or rabbit that should choose to cut short its frail existence!
Since then eagles had perched on its crown, and wild boars fed without fear of man upon its acorns. Troubadours had sung beneath it to lords and ladies seated round, or walking on the grass and commenting the minstrel's tales of love by exchange of amorous glances. Mediaeval sculptors had taken its leaves, and wisely trusting to nature, had adorned churches with those leaves cut in stone.
It had seen a Norman duke conquer England, and English kings invade France and be crowned at Paris. It had seen a girl put knights to the rout, and seen the warrior virgin burned by envious priests with common consent both of the curs she had defended and the curs she had defeated.
Why, in its old age it had seen the rise of printing, and the first dawn of national civilization in Europe. It flourished and decayed in France; but it sprung in Gaul. And more remarkable still, though by all accounts it may see the world to an end, it was a tree in ancient history: its old age awaits the millennium; its first youth belonged to that great tract of time which includes the birth of Christ, the building of Rome, and the siege of Troy.
The tree had, ere this, mingled in the fortunes of the family. It had saved their lives and taken their lives. One lord of Beaurepaire, hotly pursued by his feudal enemies, made for the tree, and hid himself partly by a great bough, partly by the thick screen of 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 a store of Malvoisie: and so the oak and the vine saved the quaking baron. Another lord of Beaurepaire, besieged in his castle, was shot dead on the ramparts by a cross-bowman who had secreted himself unobserved in this tree a little before the dawn.
A young heir of Beaurepaire, climbing for a raven's nest to the top of this tree, lost his footing and fell, and died at its foot: and his mother in her anguish bade them cut down the tree that had killed her boy. But the baron her husband refused, and spake in this wise: "ytte ys eneugh that I lose mine sonne, I will nat alsoe lose mine Tre." In the male you see the sober sentiment of the proprietor outweighed the temporary irritation of the parent. Then the mother bought fifteen ells of black velvet, and stretched a pall from the knights' bough across the west side to another branch, and cursed the hand that should remove it, and she herself "wolde never passe the Tre neither going nor coming, but went still about." And when she died and should have been carried past the tree to the park, her dochter did cry from a window to the bearers, "Goe about! goe about!" and they went about, and all the company. And in time the 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 and dispersed the trappings of the mother's grief, two pieces were picked up and preserved among the family relics: but the black velvet had turned a rusty red.
So the baroness did nothing new in this family when she hung her chaplet on the knights' bough; and, in fact, on the west side, about eighteen feet from the ground, there still mouldered one corner of an Atchievement an heir of Beaurepaire had nailed there two centuries before, when his predecessor died: "For," said he, "the chateau 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 side yawned 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, and there leave it.
Yet in spite of excavation and mutilation not life only but vigor dwelt in this wooden shell. The extreme ends of the longer boughs were firewood, touchwood, and the crown was gone this many a year: but narrow the circle a very little to where the indomitable trunk could still shoot sap from its cruse deep in earth, and there on every side burst the green foliage in its season countless as the sand. 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: and greener than ever: for, from what cause nature only knows, the leaves were many shades richer than any other tree could show for a hundred miles round; a deep green, fiery, yet soft; and then their multitude--the staircases of foliage as you looked up the tree, and could scarce catch a glimpse of the sky. An inverted abyss of color, a mound, a dome, of flake emeralds that quivered in the golden 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 jet leaves tipped with frosty fire!
Now is the still hour to repeat in a whisper the words of the dame of Beaurepaire, "You were here before us: you will be here when we are gone."
We leave the hoary king of trees standing in the moonlight, calmly defying time, and follow the creatures of a day; for, what they were, we are.
A spacious saloon panelled; dead but showy white picked out sparingly with gold. Festoons of fruits and flowers finely carved in wood on some of the panels. These also not smothered in gilding, but as it were gold speckled here and there, like tongues of flame winding among insoluble snow. Ranged against the walls were sofas and chairs covered with rich stuffs well worn. And in one little distant corner of the long room a gray-haired gentleman and two young ladies sat round a small plain table, on which burned a solitary candle; and a little way apart in this candle's twilight an old lady sat in an easy-chair, thinking of the past, scarce daring to inquire the future. Josephine and Rose were working: not fancy- work but needle-work; Dr. Aubertin writing. Every now and then he put the one candle nearer the girls. They raised no objection: only a few minutes after a white hand would glide from one or other of them like a serpent, and smoothly convey the light nearer to the doctor'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 is certainly past the hour;" and she pried into the room as if she expected to see Jacintha on the road. But she saw in fact very little of anything, for the spacious room was impenetrable to her eye; midway from the candle to the distant door its twilight deepened, and all became shapeless and sombre. The prospect ended sharp and black, as in those out-o'-door closets imagined and painted by a certain great painter, whose Nature comes to a full stop as soon as he has no further commercial need of her, instead of melting by fine expanse and exquisite gradation into genuine distance, as nature does in Claude and in nature. To reverse the picture, if you stood at the door you looked across forty feet of black, and the little corner seemed on fire, and the fair heads about the candle shone like the St. Cecilias and Madonnas in an antique stained-glass window.
At last the door opened, and another candle fired Jacintha's comely
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