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- The Champdoce Mystery - 3/61 -
A DANGEROUS ACQUAINTANCE.
Daumon was not a native of this part of the country, and no one knew from whence he came. He said that he had been an attorney's clerk, and had certainly resided for a long time in Paris. He was a little man of fifty years of age, clean shaved, and with a sharp and cunning expression of countenance. His long nose, sharp, restless eyes, and thin lips, attracted attention at first sight. His whole aspect aroused a feeling of distrust. He had come to Bevron, some fifteen years before, with all his provisions in a cotton handkerchief slung over his shoulder. He was willing to make money in any way, and he prospered and rose. He owned fields, vineyards, and a cottage, which is at the juncture of the highway to Poitiers and the cross road that leads to Bevron. His aim and object were to be seen everywhere, to know everybody, and to have a finger in every pie in the neighborhood around. If any of the farmers or the laborers wanted small advances, they went to him, and he granted them loans at exorbitant rates of interest. He gave most disputants counsel, and had every point of law at his fingers' ends. He could teach people how to sail as close to the wind as possible, and yet to be beyond the reach of the law. He affected to be only too anxious to ameliorate the lot of the peasant class, and yet he was drawing heavy sums from them by way of interest. He endeavored by every means in his power to rouse their feelings of animosity against both the priesthood and the gentry. His artful way of talking, and the long black coat which he wore, had given him the nickname of the "Counsellor" in the district. The reason why he disliked the Duke was because the latter had more than once shown himself hostile to him, and had taken him before the court of justice, from which Daumon only escaped by means of bribery of suborned witnesses. He vowed that he would be revenged for this, and for five years had been watching his opportunity, and this was the man whom Norbert met when he went to deliver his corn to the miller. As he was coming back with his empty wagon, Daumon asked for a lift back as far as the cross road that led to his cottage.
"I trust, sir," said he with the most servile courtesy, "that you will excuse the liberty I take, but I am so utterly crippled with rheumatism that I can hardly walk, Marquis."
Daumon had read somewhere that the eldest son of a Duke was entitled to be styled /Marquis/, and it was the first time that Norbert had been thus addressed. Before this he would have laughed at the appellation, but now his wounded vanity, and his exasperation at the unhappy condition in which he found himself, tempted him to accept the title without remonstrance.
"All right, I can give you a lift," said he, and the Counsellor clambered into the cart.
All the time that he was showering thanks upon Norbert for his courtesy he was watching the young man's face carefully.
"Evidently," thought the Counsellor to himself, "something unusual has taken place at the Chateau de Champdoce. Was not the opportunity for revenge here?"
Long since he had decided that through the son he could strike the father. But he must be cautious.
"You must have been up very early, Marquis," said he.
The young man made no reply.
"The Duke," resumed Daumon, "is most fortunate in having such a son as you. I know more than one father who says to his children, 'See what an excellent example the young Marquis de Champdoce sets to you all. He is not afraid of hard work, though he is noble by birth, and should not soil his hands by labor.' "
A sudden lurch brought the Counsellor's eloquence to a sudden close, but he speedily resumed again.
"I was watching you as you hefted the sacks. Heavens! what muscles! what a pair of shoulders!"
At any other moment Norbert would have gloried in such laudation, but now he felt displeased and annoyed, and vented his anger by a sharp cut at his team.
"When people say that you are as innocent as a girl," continued Daumon, "I always say that you are a sensible young fellow after all, and that if you choose to lead a regular life, it is far better than wasting your future fortune in wine, billiards, cards, or women."
"I don't know that I might not do something of the kind," returned Norbert.
"What did you say?" answered his wily companion.
"I said that if I were my own master, I would live as other young men."
The lad paused abruptly, and Daumon's eyes gleamed with joy.
"Aha," murmured he to himself; "I have the game in my own hands. I will teach his Grace to interfere with me."
Then, in a voice which could reach Norbert's ears, he continued,--
"Of course some parents are far too strict."
An impatient gesture from Norbert showed him that he had wounded him deeply.
"Yes, yes," put in the wily Counsellor, "as the head grows bald, and the blood begins to stagnate, they forget,--they forget the days when all was so different. They forget the time when they were young, and when they sowed their wild oats with so lavish a hand. When your father was twenty-five, he was precious wild. Ask your father, if you do not believe me."
At this moment the wagon passed the cross road, and Norbert pulled up.
"I cannot thank you enough, Marquis," said the Counsellor as he alighted with difficulty; "but if you would condescend to come and taste my brandy, I would esteem it a great honor."
Norbert hesitated for an instant: his reasoning powers urged him to decline the offer, but he refused to listen to them, and, fastening his horses to a tree, he followed Daumon down the by-road. The cottage was an excellent one, and extremely well furnished. A woman, who acted as Daumon's housekeeper, served the refreshments. The office--for he called his room an office, just as if he was a professional man--was a strange-looking place. On one side was a desk covered with account books, and against the wall were sacks of seed. A number of books on legal matters crowded the shelves, and from the ceiling hung a quantity of dried herbs. The Counsellor welcomed the heir to the dukedom of Champdoce with the greatest deference, seated him in his own capacious leathern arm-chair, and pressed the brandy which he had refused upon him.
"I got this brandy from a man down Arcachon way in return for a kindness that I did him; for, without boasting, I may say that I have done kindnesses for many people in my time." He raised his glass to his lips as he spoke. "It is good, is it not?" said he. "You can't get stuff with an aroma like that hereabouts."
The extreme deference of the man, coupled with the excellence of the spirit, opened Norbert's heart in a very short space of time. Up to the present the conduct of poor Norbert had been blameless, but now, without knowing anything of the Counsellor's character or reputation, he poured out all the secret sorrows of his heart, while Daumon chuckled secretly, preserving all the time the imperturbable face of a physician called in to visit a patient.
"Dear me! dear me!" said he; "this is really too bad. Poor fellow! I really pity you. Were it not for the deep respect that I have for the Duke, your father, I should feel inclined to say that he was not quite in his right senses."
"Yes," continued Norbert, the tears starting to his eyes, "this is just how I am situated. My destiny has been marked out for me, and I am helpless to alter it. I had better a thousand times be lying under the cold greensward, than vegetate thus above ground."
The peculiar smile on Daumon's lips caused him to pause in his complaint.
"Perhaps," he went on, "you think that I am childish in talking thus?"
"Not at all, Marquis, you have suffered too deeply; but forgive me if I say that you are foolish to despond so much over the future that lies before you."
"Future!" repeated Norbert angrily, "what is the use of speaking to me of the future, when I may be kept in this horrible servitude for the next thirty years? My father is still hale and hearty."
"What of that? You will be of age soon, and then you will have full right to claim your mother's fortune."
The extreme surprise displayed by Norbert at this intelligence convinced the Counsellor that he was much more unsophisticated than he had supposed him to be.
"A man," continued he, "can, when he attains his majority, dispose of his inheritance as he thinks fit, and your mother's fortune will render you independent of your father."
"But I should never dare to claim it; how could I venture to do so?"
"You need not make the application personally; your solicitor would manage all that for you; but, of course, you must wait until you are of age."
"But I cannot wait until then," said Norbert; "I must at once free myself from this tyranny."
"Luckily there are ways."
"Do you really think so, Daumon?"
"Yes, and I will show you what is done every day. Nothing is more common in noble families. Would you like to be a soldier?"
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