Table of Contents

+ Add to Library

Previous Next

Chapter 34 THE ABSOLUTION OF MONSIEUR LE MARQUIS DE PERIGNY

  • The Château Saint Louis shimmered in the November moonlight. It was a castl_n dream. Solitude brooded over the pile as a mother broods over an empty cot.
  • High above the citadel the gilded ball of the flagstaff glittered like a war_opaz. Below, the roofs of the warehouses shone like silver under gauze. _rooked black line marked the course of the icy river, and here and there _hantom moon flashed upon it. The quiet beauty of all this was broken by th_ed harshness of artificial light which gleamed from a single window in th_hâteau, like a Cyclopean eye. Stillness was within. If any moved about o_his floor it was on tiptoe. Death stood at the door and peered into th_arkest corners. For the Marquis de Périgny was about to start out upon tha_ourney which has no visible end, which leaves no trail behind: men settin_ut this way forget the way back, being without desire.
  • Who shall plumb the depth of the bitterness in this old man's heart, as he la_mong his pillows, his head moving feebly from side to side, his attenuate_ingers plucking at the coverlet, his tongue stealing slowly along his cracke_nd burning lips. Fragments of his life passed in ragged panorama. His min_andered, and again became keen with the old-time cynicism and philosophy, a_ coal glows and fades in a fitful wind. In all these weeks he had left hi_ed but once … to find that his son was lost in the woods, a captive, perhap_ead. Too late; he had always been too late. He had turned the forgiving han_way. And how had he wronged that hand?
  • "Margot?" he said, speaking to a shadow.
  • Jehan rose from his chair and approached his master. His withered, leather_ace had lost the power to express emotion; but his faded eyes sparkle_uspiciously.
  • "Monsieur?" he said.
  • "What o'clock is it?" asked the marquis, irritably.
  • "It is midnight, Monsieur."
  • "Monsieur le Comte has not come in yet? With his sponging friends, I suppose; drinking and gaming at the Corne d'Abondance." Thus had the marquis spoken i_he Rochelle days. "A sip of wine; I am cold." Jehan put his arm around th_hin shoulders of his master and held the glass to the trembling lips. _ectic flush superseded the pallor, and the delusion was gone. The coa_lowed. "It is you, Jehan? Well, my faithful henchman, you will have t_ontinue the journey alone. My relays have given out. Go back to Périgny i_he spring. I shall be buried here."
  • Jehan shivered. The earth would be very cold here.
  • "The lad was a prophet. He told me that I should die in bed like this, alone, without one of my blood near me at the end. He spoke of phantoms, too. … The_re everywhere. And without the consolation of a friendly priest!"
  • "Monsieur, do you know me?"
  • "Why, yes, Jehan."
  • "Brother Jacques and Monsieur le Comte returned this day from the wilderness.
  • I have seen them."
  • The marquis's hands became still. "Pride has filled my path with black pits.
  • Jehan, after all, was it a dream?"
  • "What, Monsieur?"
  • "That duel with D'Hérouville"
  • "It was no dream, Monsieur."
  • "That is well. I should, like to see Monsieur le Comte. He must be a man now."
  • "I will call him."
  • "Presently, presently. He forgave me. Only, I should like to have him kno_hat my lips lied when I turned him away. Brother Jacques; he will satisfy m_uriosity in the matter of absolution. Death? I never feared it; I do not now.
  • However, I leave with some regret; there were things which I appreciated no_n my pursuit of pleasure. Ah well, to die in bed, Jehan, was not among m_alculations. But human calculations never balance in the sum total. I hav_ropped a figure on the route, somewhere, and my account is without head o_ail. I recall a letter on the table. See if it is there, Jehan."
  • Jehan searched and found a letter under a book.
  • "What does it say?"
  • "'To Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny, to be delivered into his hands at m_eath'," Jehan read.
  • "From … from my son?"
  • "I do not know, Monsieur."
  • "Open it and read it."
  • "It is in Latin, Monsieur, a language unknown to me," Jehan carefull_xplained.
  • "Give it to me;" but the marquis's fingers trembled and shook and his eye_tared in vain. "My eyes have failed me, too. I can not distinguish one lette_rom another. Give it to Brother Jacques when he comes. He is a priest; the_ll read Latin."
  • "Then I shall send for him and Monsieur le Comte?"
  • "Wait till I am sure that I can stand the sight of him. Is Sister Beni_ithout? Call her. She quiets me. Brother Jacques may come in half an hour; after him, Monsieur le Comte. I wish to have done with all things and die i_eace."
  • So Jehan went in search of Sister Benie. When she came in her angelic face wa_s white as the collaret which encircled her throat, and the scar was mor_ivid than usual. Alas, the marquis's mind had gone a-wandering again: th_oal dimmed. She put her hand on his brow to still the wagging head.
  • "It was so long ago, Margot," he babbled. "It was all a mistake. … A foo_lunges into all follies, but a wise man avoids what he can. I have been bot_he wise man and the fool. … And I struck you across the face with the lash?
  • Ah, the poor scar!" He touched the scar with his hand, and she wavered. "_oved you. It is true. I did not know it then. You are dead, and you know tha_ loved you. Do you think the lad has really forgiven me for what I have don_o him? … I am weary of the contest; Death sits on his horse outside th_oor."
  • She was praying, praying for strength to go through this ordeal.
  • "Where did you go, Margot?" he asked. "I searched for you; you were gone.
  • Where did you go that day?"
  • Outside, in the corridor, Jehan was listening with eyes distended. And th_arquis did not know, being out of his mind again!
  • "Hush, Henriot!" said Sister Benie. Tumult was in her heart. His icy han_losed over hers, which was scarce warmer; all the blood was in her heart. He_rms ached with longing to wrap this poor form to her breast. This was th_upreme hour of her expiation.
  • "Henriot?" she called softly. "Henriot?" Thirty years of forgiveness and lov_hrilled in that name.
  • Jehan stole away. All this was not for his ears. Only God had the right t_isten.
  • "Margot, are you still there? Henriot! I have not heard that name in thirt_ears."
  • She knew that delusion held him in its grasp, that he saw her only in fancy, else she must have flown.
  • "Can you forgive me, Margot? … I have no faith in women. … I have your lette_till; in a casket at Périgny. It is yellow with age, and crumbles to th_ouch. Where did you go? After madame died I was lonely. … All, all ar_hantoms!" Then his delusion took another turn. He saw her no more. "Monsieu_e Longueville, you lie when you say that I received billets from madame. _now a well-trodden place behind the Tuileries. Perhaps you will follow me? … Richelieu dead? What, then, will become of France, Jehan? Has Monsieur l_omte come in yet?"
  • There were no tears in her eyes. Those reservoirs had emptied and dried twent_ears ago. But her heart cried. A new pain stabbed her, causing the room t_areen. She kissed him on the forehead. It was all beyond her capacity fo_uffering. Her love belonged to God, not to man. To remain was to lose he_eason. She would go before the delusion passed. In the corridor she woul_neel and pray for this dark soul which was about to leap toward the Infinite.
  • On the threshold she came face to face with Brother Jacques, whose pallor, i_nything, exceeded her own. She stopped, undecided, hesitant. … Was it th_olor of his eyes?
  • "I have come, Sister, to give Monsieur le Marquis absolution." His tone wa_ild and reassuring. Stuck between his gown and his belt was the letter Jeha_ad given him to read. He had not looked at it yet. "Monsieur le Marquis ha_alled for me."
  • "You have full powers?" uncertain and distressed. She did not like the feve_n his eyes.
  • "I am fully ordained. I may not perform mass because of my mutilation, thoug_ am expecting a dispensation from his Holiness the pope." He held out hi_and, and her distrust subsided at the sight of those reddened stumps. "Yo_re standing in my way, Sister. Seek Monsieur le Chevalier, if you will be s_ind. He is in the citadel."
  • She moved to one side, and he passed into the room. When he reached th_edside, he turned. Sister Benie dropped her gaze, stepped into the corridor, and softly closed the door. Brother Jacques and the marquis were alone. Th_ask of calm fell from the priest's countenance, leaving it gloomy an_aggard. But the fever in his eyes remained unchanged.
  • "It is something that you have forgiven me, Margot," the marquis murmured. Hi_ancy had veered again. His eyes were closed; and Brother Jacques could se_he shadow of the iris beneath the lids.
  • "Margot?" Brother Jacques trembled. "He wanders! Will he regain lucidity?"
  • A quarter of an hour passed. The moonbeam on the wall moved perceptibly. Onc_rother Jacques pulled forth the letter and glanced again at the address. I_as singular. It recalled to him that night when this old man had presse_'Hérouville to the wall. "To Monsieur le Marquis de Périgny, to be delivere_nto his hands at my death." The priest wondered whose death this meant. H_id not replace the letter in his belt, but slipped it into the pocket of hi_obe, thoughtlessly.
  • "Paul? … Ah! it is Brother Jacques. Curse these phantoms which recur again an_gain. But my son," eagerly; "he is well? He is uninjured? He will be her_oon?"
  • "Yes, my father."
  • "Once you asked me to call you if ever I changed my mind regarding religion. _ill test this absolution of yours."
  • "Presently."
  • "Eh?"
  • "I said presently, my father."
  • "Father? … You say father?"
  • "Yes. But a moment gone you spoke of Margot Bourdaloue."
  • "What is that to you?" cried the marquis, raising himself on an elbow, thoug_he effort cost him pain.
  • "She was my mother," softly.
  • The marquis fell back among his pillows. The gnawing of a mouse behind th_all could be heard distinctly. Brother Jacques was conscious of the sound.
  • "My mother," he repeated.
  • "You lie, Jesuit!"
  • "Not at this hour, my father."
  • "Son of Margot Bourdaloue, you! … Ah!" The marquis rose again, leaning on bot_rms. "Have you come to mock my death-bed?"
  • "Truth is not mockery."
  • "Away, lying Jesuit!"
  • The priest stooped. "Look well into my face, Monsieur; look well. Is there no_omething there to awaken your memory?" Brother Jacques brought his fac_ithin a span of the marquis's. "Look!"
  • "The eyes, the eyes! … Margot, a son? … What do you want?" The marqui_oistened his lips.
  • "To make your last hour something like the many I have lived. Where is th_oman you wronged and cast aside, my mother?"
  • The marquis's arms gave way.
  • "Ah, but I have waited for this hour!" said Brother Jacques. All the years o_uffering returned and spread their venom through his veins. "I have starved.
  • I have begged. I have been beaten. I have slept in fields and have been bitte_y dogs. I have seen you feasting at your table while I hungered outside. _ave watched your coach as it rolled through the château gates. One day you_ostilion struck me with his whip because I did not get out of the way soo_nough. I have crept into sheds and shared the straw with beasts which ha_ore pity than you. I thought of you, Monsieur le Marquis, you in your châtea_ith plenty to eat and drink, and a fire toasting your noble shins. Have I no_hought of you?"
  • "I am an old man," said the marquis, bewildered. This priest must be _ightmare, another of those phantoms which were crowding around his bed.
  • "How I longed for riches, luxury, content! For had I not your blood in m_eins and were not my desires natural? I became a priest because I coul_tarve no longer without dying. I have seen your true son in the forests, hav_alled him brother, though he did not understand. You cursed him and made hi_n outcast, wilfully. I was starving as a lad of two. My mother, Margo_ourdaloue, went out in search of bread. I followed, but became lost. I neve_aw my mother again; I can not even remember how she looked. I can only recal_he starved eyes. And you cursed your acknowledged son and applied to him th_pithet which I have borne these twenty years. Unnatural father!"
  • "Unnatural son," murmured the marquis.
  • "I have suffered!" Brother Jacques flung his arms above his head as if to hur_he trembling curse. "No; I shall not curse you. You do not believe in God.
  • Heaven and hell have no meaning."
  • "I loved your mother."
  • "Love? That is a sacred word, Monsieur; you soil it. What was it you said tha_ight at Rochelle? … That for every soul you have sent out of the world, yo_ave brought another into it? Perhaps this fellow is my brother, and I know i_ot; this woman my sister, and I pass her by."
  • "I would have provided for you."
  • To Brother Jacques it seemed that his sword of wrath had been suddenly twiste_rom his hand. The sweat stood out on his forehead.
  • "If you were turned away from my door, it was not my hand that opened it."
  • "I asked for nothing but bread," said Brother Jacques, finding his voice.
  • "Thirty years ago … I have forgotten. Margot never told me."
  • "It was easy to forget. I have never known, what love is … from another."
  • "Have I?" with self-inflicted irony.
  • "I sought it; you repelled it."
  • "I knew not how to keep it, that was all. If I should say to you, 'My son, _m sorry. I have lived evilly. I have wronged you; forgive me; I am dying'!"
  • The marquis was breathing with that rapidity which foretells of comin_issolution. "What would you say, Jesuit?"
  • Brother Jacques stood petrified.
  • "That silence is scarce less than a curse," said the marquis.
  • Still Brother Jacques's tongue refused its offices.
  • "Ah, well, I brought you into the world carelessly, you have cursed me out o_t. We are quits. Begone!" There was dignity in his gesture toward the door.
  • Brother Jacques did not stir.
  • "Begone, I say, and let me die in peace."
  • "I will give you absolution, father."
  • The fierce, burning eyes seemed to search into Brother Jacques's soul. Ther_as on that proud face neither fear nor horror. And this was the hour Brothe_acques had planned and waited for! For this moment he had donned the robes, isolated himself, taken vows, suffered physical tortures! He had come t_urse: he was offering absolution.
  • "Hypocrite, begone!" cried the marquis, seized with vertigo. He tried t_trike the bell, but the effort merely sent it jangling to the floor.
  • "Begone!"
  • "Monsieur!"
  • "Must I call for help?"
  • Brother Jacques could stand no more. He rushed madly toward the door, which h_pened violently. Sister Benie stood in the corridor, transfixed.
  • "My son?" she faltered. A pathetic little sob escaped her. Her arms reache_ut feebly; she fell. Brother Jacques caught her, but she was dead. Her hear_ad broken. With a cry such as Dante conceived in his dream of hell, Brothe_acques fell beside her, insensible.
  • The marquis stared at the two prostrate figures, fumbling with his lips.
  • Then came the sound of hurrying feet, and Jehan, followed by the Chevalier, entered.
  • "Jehan, quick! My clothes; quick!" The marquis was throwing aside th_overlet.
  • "Father!" cried the Chevalier.
  • "Jehan, quick! My clothes; quick!" the marquis cried. "My clothes, my clothes!
  • Help me! I must dress!"
  • With trembling hands Jehan did as his master bade him. The Chevalier, appalled, glanced first at his father, then at Brother Jacques and Siste_enie. He leaned against the wall, dazed; understood nothing of this scene.
  • "My shoes! Yes, yes! My sword!" rambled the dying man, in the last frenzy.
  • "Paul said I should die in bed, alone. No, no! … Now, stand me on my feet … that is it! … Paul, it is you? Help me! Take me to her! Margot, Margot? … There is my heart, Jehan, the heart of the marquis. … Take me to her? And _hought I dreamed! Take me to her! … Margot?" He was on his knees beside her, kissing her hands and shuddering, shuddering.
  • "Margot is dead, Monsieur," said the aged valet. The tears rolled down hi_eathery cheeks.
  • "Margot!" murmured the Chevalier. He had never heard this name before. Wha_id it mean? "Father?" He came swiftly toward the marquis.
  • "Dead!" The marquis staggered to his feet without assistance. He swung dizzil_oward the candles on the mantel. He struck them. "Away with the lights, fools." The candles rolled and sputtered en the floor. "Away with them, _ay!" Toward the table he lurched, avoiding the Chevalier's arms. From th_able he dashed the candles. "Away with the lights! The Marquis de Pérign_hall die as he lived … in the dark!"
  • He fell upon the bed, his face hidden in the pillows. When the Chevalie_eached his side he was dead.