A ROMANCE OF THE FOREST
“ — My May of life
“Full oft, unknowing and unknown,
La Motte had now passed above a month in this seclusion; and his wife had the pleasure to see him recover tranquillity and even cheerfulness. In this pleasure Adeline warmly participated; and she might justly have congratulated herself, as one cause of his restoration; her cheerfulness and delicate attention had effected what Madame La Motte’s greater anxiety had failed to accomplish. La Motte did not seem regardless of her amiable disposition, and sometimes thanked her in a manner more earnest than was usual with him. She, in her turn, considered him as her only protector, and now felt towards him the affection of a daughter.
The time she had spent in this peaceful retirement had softened the remembrance of past events, and restored her mind to its natural tone: and when memory brought back to her view her former short and romantic expectations of happiness, though she gave a sigh to the rapturous illusion, she less lamented the disappointment, than rejoiced in her present security and comfort.
But the satisfaction which La Motte’s cheerfulness diffused around him was of short continuance; he became suddenly gloomy and reserved; the society of his family was no longer grateful to him; and he would spend whole hours in the most secluded parts of the forest, devoted to melancholy and secret grief. He did not, as formerly, indulge the humour of his sadness, without restraint, in the presence of others; he now evidently endeavoured to conceal it, and affected a cheerfulness that was too artificial to escape detection.
His servant Peter, either impelled by curiosity or kindness, sometimes followed him, unseen, into the forest. He observed him frequently retire to one particular spot, in a remote part, which having gained, he always disappeared, before Peter, who was obliged to follow at a distance, could exactly notice where. All his endeavours, now prompted by wonder and invigorated by disappointment, were unsuccessful, and he was at length compelled to endure the tortures of unsatisfied curiosity.
This change in the manners and habits of her husband was too conspicuous to pass unobserved by Madame La Motte, who endeavoured, by all the stratagems which affection could suggest, or female invention supply, to win him to her confidence. He seemed insensible to the influence of the first, and withstood the wiles of the latter. Finding all her efforts insufficient to dissipate the glooms which overhung his mind, or to penetrate their secret cause, she desisted from farther attempt, and endeavoured to submit to this mysterious distress.
Week after week elapsed, and the same unknown cause sealed the lips and corroded the heart of La Motte. The place of his visitation in the forest had not been traced. Peter had frequently examined round the spot where his master disappeared, but had never discovered any recess, which could be supposed to conceal him. The astonishment of the servant was at length raised to an insupportable degree, and he communicated to his mistress the subject of it.
The emotion, which this information excited, she disguised from Peter, and reproved him for the means he had taken to gratify his curiosity. But she revolved this circumstance in her thoughts, and comparing it with the late alteration in his temper, her uneasiness was renewed, and her perplexity considerably increased. After much consideration, being unable to assign any other motive for his conduct, she began to attribute it to the influence of illicit passion; and her heart, which now out-ran her judgement, confirmed the supposition, and roused all the torturing pangs of jealousy.
Comparatively speaking, she had never known affliction till now: she had abandoned her dearest friends and connections — had relinquished the gaieties, the luxuries, and almost the necessaries of life; — fled with her family into exile, an exile the most dreary and comfortless; experiencing the evils of reality, and those of apprehension, united: all these she had patiently endured, supported by the affection of him, for whose sake she suffered. Though that affection, indeed, had for some time appeared to be abated, she had borne its decrease with fortitude: but the last stroke of calamity, hitherto withheld, now came with irresistible force — the love, of which she lamented the loss, she now believed was transferred to another.
The operation of strong passion confuses the powers of reason, and warps them to its own particular direction. Her usual degree of judgement, unopposed by the influence of her heart, would probably have pointed out to Madame La Motte some circumstances upon the subject of her distress, equivocal, if not contradictory to her suspicions. No such circumstances appeared to her, and she did not long hesitate to decide, that Adeline was the object of her husband’s attachment. Her beauty out of the question, who else, indeed, could it be in a spot thus secluded from the world?
The same cause destroyed, almost at the same moment, her only remaining comfort; and, when she wept that she could no longer look for happiness in the affection of La Motte, she wept also, that she could no longer seek solace in the friendship of Adeline. She had too great an esteem for her to doubt at first, the integrity of her conduct, but, in spite of reason, her heart no longer expanded to her with its usual warmth of kindness. She shrunk from her confidence; and, as the secret broodings of jealousy cherished her suspicions, she became less kind to her, even in manner.
Adeline, observing the change, at first attributed it to accident, and afterwards to a temporary displeasure, arising from some little inadvertency in her conduct. She, therefore, increased her assiduities; but, perceiving, contrary to all expectation, that her efforts to please failed of their usual consequence, and that the reserve of Madame’s manner rather increased than abated, she became seriously uneasy, and resolved to seek an explanation. This Madame La Motte as sedulously avoided, and was for some time able to prevent. Adeline, however, too much interested in the event to yield to delicate scruples, pressed the subject so closely, that Madame, at first agitated and confused, at length invented some idle excuse, and laughed off the affair.
She now saw the necessity of subduing all appearance of reserve towards Adeline; and though her art could not conquer the prejudices of passion, it taught her to assume, with tolerable success, the aspect of kindness. Adeline was deceived, and was again at peace. Indeed, confidence in the sincerity and goodness of others was her weakness. But the pangs of stifled jealousy struck deeper to the heart of Madame La Motte, and she resolved, at all events, to obtain some certainty upon the subject of her suspicions.
She now condescended to a meanness, which she had before despised, and ordered Peter to watch the steps of his master, in order to discover, if possible, the place of his visitation! So much did passion win upon her judgement, by time and indulgence, that she sometimes ventured even to doubt the integrity of Adeline, and afterwards proceeded to believe it possible that the object of La Motte’s rambles might be an assignation with her. What suggested this conjecture was, that Adeline frequently took long walks alone in the forest, and sometimes was absent from the abbey for many hours. This circumstance, which Madame La Motte had at first attributed to Adeline’s fondness for the picturesque beauties of nature, now operated forcibly upon her imagination, and she could view it in no other light, than as affording an opportunity for secret conversation with her husband.
Peter obeyed the orders of his mistress with alacrity, for they were warmly seconded by his own curiosity. All his endeavours were, however, fruitless; he never dared to follow La Motte near enough to observe the place of his last retreat. Her impatience thus heightened by delay, and her passion stimulated by difficulty, Madame La Motte now resolved to apply to her husband for an explanation of his conduct.
After some consideration, concerning the manner most likely to succeed with him, she went to La Motte, but when she entered the room where he sat, forgetting all her concerted address, she fell at his feet, and was, for some moments, lost in tears. Surprized at her attitude and distress, he inquired the occasion of it, and was answered, that it was caused by his own conduct. “My conduct! What part of it, pray?” inquired he.
“Your reserve, your secret sorrow, and frequent absence from the abbey.”
“Is it then so wonderful, that a man, who has lost almost every thing, should sometimes lament his misfortunes? or so criminal to attempt concealing his grief, that he must be blamed for it by those, whom he would save from the pain of sharing it?”
Having uttered these words, he quitted the room, leaving Madame La Motte lost in surprize, but somewhat relieved from the pressure of her former suspicions. Still, however, she pursued Adeline with an eye of scrutiny; and the mask of kindness would sometimes fall off, and discover the features of distrust. Adeline, without exactly knowing why, felt less at ease and less happy in her presence than formerly; her spirits drooped, and she would often, when alone, weep at the forlornness of her condition. Formerly, her remembrance of past sufferings was lost in the friendship of Madame La Motte; now, though her behaviour was too guarded to betray any striking instance of unkindness, there was something in her manner which chilled the hopes of Adeline, unable as she was to analyse it. But a circumstance, which soon occurred, suspended, for a while, the jealousy of Madame La Motte, and roused her husband from his state of gloomy stupefaction.
Peter, having been one day to Auboine, for the weekly supply of provisions, returned with intelligence that awakened in La Motte new apprehension and anxiety.
“Oh, Sir! I’ve heard something that has astonished me, as well it may,” cried Peter, “and so it will you, when you come to know it. As I was standing in the blacksmith’s shop, while the smith was driving a nail into the horse’s shoe (by the bye, the horse lost it in an odd way, I’ll tell you, Sir, how it was)” —
“Nay, prithee leave it till another time, and go on with your story.”
“Why then, Sir, as I was standing in the blacksmith’s shop, comes in a man with a pipe in his mouth, and a large pouch of tobacco in his hand” — “Well — what has the pipe to do with the story?”
“Nay, Sir, you put me out; I can’t go on, unless you let me tell it my own way. As I was saying — with a pipe in his mouth — I think I was there, your Honour!”
“He sets himself down on the bench, and, taking the pipe from his mouth, says to the blacksmith — Neighbour, do you know any body of the name of La Motte hereabouts? — Bless your Honour, I turned all of a cold sweat in a minute! — Is not your Honour well, shall I fetch you any thing?”
“No — but be short in your narrative.”
“La Motte! La Motte! said the blacksmith, I think I’ve heard the name.” — “Have you?” said I, you’re cunning then, for there’s no such person hereabouts, to my knowledge.”
“Fool! — why did you say that?”
“Because I did not want them to know your Honour was here; and if I had not managed very cleverly, they would have found me out. There is no such person, hereabouts, to my knowledge, says I,” — “Indeed! says the blacksmith, you know more of the neighbourhood than I do then.” — Aye, says the man with the pipe, that’s very true. How came you to know so much of the neighbourhood? I came here twenty-six years ago, come next St. Michael, and you know more than I do. How came you to know so much?”
“With that he put his pipe in his mouth, and gave a whiff full in my face. Lord! your Honour, I trembled from head to foot. Nay, as for that matter, says I, I don’t know more than other people, but I’m sure I never heard of such a man as that.” — Pray, says the blacksmith, staring me full in the face, an’t you the man that was inquiring some time since about Saint Clair’s Abbey?” — “Well, what of that? says I, what does that prove?” — “Why, they say, somebody lives in the abbey now, said the man, turning to the other; and, for aught I know, it may be this same La Motte.” — “Aye, or for aught I know either, says the man with the pipe, getting up from the bench, and you know more of this than you’ll own. I’ll lay my life on’t, this Monsieur La Motte lives at the abbey.” — “Aye, says I, you are out there, for he does not live at the abbey now.”
“Confound your folly!” cried La Motte, “but be quick — how did the matter end?”
“My master does not live there now, said I. — Oh! oh! said the man with the pipe; he is your master, then? And pray how long has he left the abbey — and where does he live now?” Hold, said I, not so fast — I know when to speak and when to hold my tongue — but who has been inquiring for him?”
“What! he expected somebody to inquire for him? says the man.” — No, says I, he did not, but if he did, what does that prove? — that argues nothing.” With that, he looked at the blacksmith, and they went out of the shop together, leaving my horse’s shoe undone. But I never minded that, for the moment they were gone, I mounted and rode away as fast as I could. But in my fright, your Honour, I forgot to take the round about way, and so came straight home.”
La Motte, extremely shocked at Peter’s intelligence, made no other reply than by cursing his folly, and immediately went in search of Madame, who was walking with Adeline on the banks of the river. La Motte was too much agitated to soften his information by preface. “We are discovered!” said he, “the King’s officers have been inquiring for me at Auboine, and Peter has blundered upon my ruin.” He then informed her of what Peter had related, and bade her prepare to quit the abbey.
“But whither can we fly?” said Madame La Motte, scarcely able to support herself. “Any where!” said he, “to stay here is certain destruction. We must take refuge in Switzerland, I think. If any part of France would have concealed me, surely it had been this!”
“Alas, how are we perfecuted!” rejoined Madame. “This spot is scarcely made comfortable, before we are obliged to leave it, and go we know not whither.”
“I wish we may not yet know whither,” replied La Motte, “that is the least evil that threatens us. Let us escape a prison, and I care not whither we go. But return to the abbey immediately, and pack up what moveables you can.” A flood of tears came to the relief of Madame La Motte, and she hung upon Adeline’s arm, silent and trembling. Adeline, though she had no comfort to bestow, endeavoured to command her feelings and appear composed. Come,” said La Motte, “we waste time; let us lament hereafter, but at present prepare for flight. Exert a little of that fortitude, which is so necessary for our preservation. Adeline does not weep, yet her state is as wretched as your own, for I know not how long I shall be able to protect her.”
Notwithstanding her terror, this reproof touched the pride of Madame La Motte, who dried her tears, but disdained to reply, and looked at Adeline with a strong expression of displeasure. As they moved silently toward the abbey, Adeline asked La Motte if he was sure they were the king’s officers, who inquired for him. “I cannot, doubt it,” he replied, “who else could possibly inquire for me? Besides, the behaviour of the man, who mentioned my name, puts the matter beyond a question.”
“Perhaps not,” said Madame La Motte: “let us wait till morning ere we set off. We may then find it will be unnecessary to go.”
“We may, indeed; the king’s officers would probably by that time have told us as much.” La Motte went to give orders to Peter. “Set off in an hour,” said Peter, “Lord bless you, master! only consider the coach wheel; it would take me a day at least to mend it, for your Honour knows I never mended one in my life.”
This was a circumstance which La Motte had entirely overlooked. When they settled at the abbey, Peter had at first been too busy in repairing the apartments, to remember the carriage, and afterwards, believing it would not quickly be wanted, he had neglected to do it. La Motte’s temper now entirely forsook him, and with many execrations he ordered Peter to go to work immediately: but on searching for the materials formerly bought, they were no where to be found, and Peter at length remembered, though he was prudent enough to conceal this circumstance that he had used the nails in repairing the abbey.
It was now, therefore, impossible to quit the forest that night, and La Motte had only to consider the most probable plan of concealment, should the officers of justice visit the ruin before the morning; a circumstance, which the thoughtlessness of Peter in returning from Auboine, by the straight way, made not unlikely.
At first, indeed, it occurred to him, that, though his family could not be removed, he might himself take one of the horses, and escape from the forest before night. But he thought there would still be some danger of detection in the towns through which he must pass, and he could not well bear the idea of leaving his family unprotected, without knowing when he could return to them, or whither he could direct them to follow him. La Motte was not a man of very vigorous resolution, and he was, perhaps, rather more willing to suffer in company than alone.
After much consideration, he recollected the trap-door of the closet belonging to the chambers above. It was invisible to the eye, and, whatever might be its direction, it would securely shelter him, at least, from discovery. Having deliberated farther upon the subject, he determined to explore the recess to which the stairs led, and thought it possible, that for a short time his whole family might be concealed within it. There was little time between the suggestion of the plan and the execution of his purpose, for darkness was spreading around, and, in every murmur of the wind, he thought he heard the voices of his enemies.
He called for a light and ascended alone to the chamber. When he came to the closet, it was some time before he could find the trap-door, so exactly did it correspond with the boards of the floor. At length, he found and raised it. The chill damps of long confined air rushed from the aperture, and he stood for a moment to let them pass, ere he descended. As he stood looking down the abyss, he recollected the report, which Peter had brought concerning the abbey, and it gave him an uneasy sensation. But this soon yielded to more pressing interests.
The stairs were steep, and in many places trembled beneath his weight. Having continued to descend for some time, his feet touched the ground, and he found himself in a narrow passage; but as he turned to pursue it, the damp vapours curled round him and extinguished the light. He called aloud for Peter, but could make nobody hear, and, after some time, he endeavoured to find his way up the stairs. In this, with difficulty, he succeeded, and, passing the chambers with cautious steps, descended the tower.
The security, which the place he had just quitted seemed to promise, was of too much importance to be slightly rejected, and he determined immediately to make another experiment with the light: — having now fixed it in a lanthorn, he descended a second time to the passage. The current of vapours occasioned by the opening of the trap-door, was abated, and the fresh air thence admitted had began to circulate: La Motte passed on unmolested.
The passage was of considerable length, and led him to a door, which was fastened. He placed the lanthorn at some distance to avoid the current of air, and applied his strength to the door. It shook under his hands, but did not yield. Upon examining it more closely, he perceived the wood round the lock was dedecayed, probably by the damps, and this encouraged him to proceed. After some time it gave way to his effort, and he found himself in a square stone room.
He stood for some time to survey it. The walls, which were dripping with unwholesome dews, were entirely bare and afforded not even a window. A small iron grate alone admitted the air. At the further end, near a low recess, was another door. La Motte went towards it, and, as he passed, looked into the recess. Upon the ground within it, stood a large chest, which he went forward to examine, and, lifting the lid, he saw the remains of a human skeleton. Horror struck upon his heart, and he involuntarily stepped back. During a pause of some moments, his first emotions subsided. That thrilling curiosity, which objects of terror often excite in the human mind, impelled him to take a second view of this dismal spectacle.
La Motte stood motionless as he gazed; the object before him seemed to confirm the report that some person had formerly been murdered in the abbey. At length he closed the chest, and advanced to the second door, which also was fastened, but the key was in the lock. He turned it with difficulty, and then found the door was held by two strong bolts. Having undrawn these, it disclosed a flight of steps, which he descended. They terminated in a chain of low vaults, or rather cells, that, from the manner of their construction and present condition, seemed to have been coeval with the most ancient parts of the abbey. La Motte, in his then depressed state of mind, thought them the burial places of the monks, who formerly inhabited the pile above; but they were more calculated for places of penance for the living, than of rest for the dead.
Having reached the extremity of these cells, the way was again closed by a door. La Motte now hesitated whether he should attempt to proceed any farther. The present spot seemed to afford the security he sought. Here he might pass the night unmolested by apprehension of discovery, and it was most probable, that if the officers arrived in the night, and found the abbey vacated, they would quit it before morning, or, at least, before he could have any occasion to emerge from concealment. These considerations restored his mind to a state of greater composure. His only immediate care was to bring his family, as soon as possible, to this place of security, lest the officers should come unawares upon them; and, while he stood thus musing, he blamed himself for delay.
But an irresistible desire of knowing to what this door led, arrested his steps, and he turned to open it. The door, however, was fastened, and, as he attempted to force it, he suddenly thought he heard a noise above. It now occurred to him, that the officers might already have arrived, and he quitted the cells with precipitation, intending to listen at the trap-door.
“There, said he, I may wait in security, and perhaps hear something of what passes. My family will not be known, or, at least, not hurt, and their uneasiness on my account, they must learn to endure.”
These were the arguments of La Motte, in which; it must be owned, selfish prudence was more conspicuous than tender anxiety for his wife. He had by this time reached the bottom of the stairs, when, on looking up, he perceived the trap-door was left open, and ascending in haste to close it, he heard footsteps advancing through the chambers above. Before he could descend entirely out of sight, he again looked up and perceived through the aperture the face of a man looking down upon him. “Master,” cried Peter; — La Motte was somewhat relieved at the sound of his voice, though angry that he had occasioned him so much terror.
“What brings you here, and what is the matter below?”
“Nothing, Sir, nothing’s the matter, only my mistress sent me to see after your Honour.”
“There’s nobody there then,” said La Motte, “setting his foot upon the step.”
“Yes, Sir, there is my mistress and Mademoiselle Adeline and” — “Well — well” said La Motte briskly — “go your ways, I am coming.”
He informed Madame La Motte where he had been, and of his intention of secreting himself, and deliberated upon the means of convincing the officers, should they arrive, that he had quitted the abbey. For this purpose, he ordered all the moveable furniture to be conveyed to the cells below. La Motte himself assisted in this business, and every hand was employed for dispatch. In a very short time, the habitable part of the fabric was left almost as desolate as he had found it. He then bade Peter take the horses to a distance from the abbey, and turn them loose. After farther consideration, he thought it might contribute to mislead them, if he placed in some conspicuous part of the fabric an inscription, signifying his condition, and mentioning the date of his departure from the abbey. Over the door of the tower, which led to the habitable part of the structure, he, therefore, cut the following lines.
“O ye! whom misfortune may lead to this spot, Learn that there are others as miserable as yourselves.”
P — I-M — a wretched exile, sought within these walls a refuge from persecution, on the 27th of April 1658, and quitted them on the 12th of July in the same year, in search of a more convenient asylum.
After engraving these words with a knife, the small stock of provisions remaining from the week’s supply (for Peter, in his fright, had returned unloaded from his last journey) was put into a basket, and, La Motte having assembled his family, they all ascended the stairs of the tower and passed through the chambers to the closet. Peter went first with a light, and with some difficulty found the trap-door. Madame La Motte shuddered as she surveyed the gloomy abyss; but they were all silent.
La Motte now took the light and led the way; Madame followed, and then Adeline. “These old monks loved good wine, as well as other people,” said Peter, who brought up the rear, “I warrant your Honour, now, this was their cellar; I smell the casks already.”
“Peace,” said La Motte, “reserve your jokes for a proper occasion.”
“There is no harm in loving good wine, as your Honour knows.”
“Have done with this buffoonery,” said La Motte, in a tone more authoritative, “and go first.” Peter obeyed.
They came to the vaulted room. The dismal spectacle he had seen here, deterred La Motte from passing the night in this chamber; and the furniture had, by his own order, been conveyed to the cells below. He was anxious that his family should not perceive the skeleton; an object, which would, probably, excite a degree of horror not to be overcome during their stay. La Motte now passed the chest in haste; and Madame La Motte and Adeline were too much engrossed by their own thoughts, to give minute attention to external circumstances.
When they reached the cells, Madame La Motte wept at the necessity which condemned her to a spot so dismal. “Alas,” said she, “are we, indeed, thus reduced! The apartments above, formerly appeared to me a deplorable habitation; but they are a place compared to these.”
“True, my dear,” said La Motte, and let the remembrance of what you once thought them, soothe your discontent now; these cells are also a place, compared to the BicÚtre, or the Bastille, and to the terrors of farther punishment, which would accompany them: let the apprehension of the greater evil teach you to endure the less: I am contented if we find here the refuge I seek.”
Madame La Motte was silent, and Adeline, forgetting her late unkindness, endeavoured as much as she could to console her; while her heart was sinking with the misfortunes, which she could not but anticipate, she appeared composed, and even cheerful. She attended Madame La Motte with the most watchful solicitude, and felt so thankful that La Motte was no secreted within this recess, that she almost lost her perception of its glooms and inconveniences.
This she artlessly expressed to him, who could not be insensible to the tenderness it discovered. Madame La Motte was also sensible of it, and it renewed a painful sensation. The effusions of gratitude she mistook for those of tenderness.
La Motte returned frequently to the trap door, to listen if any body was in the abbey; but no sound disturbed the stillness of night; at length they sat down to supper; the repast was a melancholy one. “If the officers do not come hither to night,” said Madame La Motte, sighing, “suppose, my dear, Peter returns to Auboine to-morrow. He may there learn something more of this affair; or, at least, he might procure a carriage to convey us hence.”
“To be sure he might,” said La Motte, peevishly, “and people to attend it also. Peter would be an excellent person to shew the officers the way to the abbey, and to inform them of what they might else be in doubt about, my concealment here.”
“How cruel is this irony!” replied Madame La Motte, “I proposed only what I thought would be for our mutual good; my judgement was, perhaps, wrong, but my intention was certainly right.” Tears swelled into her eyes as she spoke these words. Adeline wished to relieve her; but delicacy kept her silent. La Motte observed the effect of his speech, and something like remorse touched his heart. He approached, and taking her hand, “You must allow for the perturbation of my mind,” said he, “I did not mean to afflict you thus. The idea of sending Peter to Auboine, where he has already done so much harm by his blunders, teased me, and I could not let it pass unnoticed. No, my dear, our only chance of safety is to remain where we are while our provisions last. If the officers do not come here to-night, they probably will to-morrow, or, perhaps, the next day. When they have searched the abbey, without finding me, they will depart; we may then emerge from this recess, and take measures for removing to a distant country.”
Madame La Motte acknowledged the justice of his words, and her mind being relieved by the little apology he had made, she became tolerably cheerful. Supper being ended, La Motte stationed the faithful, though simple Peter, at the foot of the steps that ascended to the closet; there to keep watch during the night. Having done this, he returned to the lower cells, where he had left his little family. The beds were spread, and having mournfully bad each other good night, they laid down, and implored rest.
Adeline’s thoughts were too busy to suffer her to repose, and when she believed her companions were sunk in slumbers, she indulged the sorrow which reflection brought. She also looked forward to the future with the most mournful apprehension. “Should La Motte be seized, what was to become of her? She would then be a wanderer in the wide world; without friends to protect, or money to support her; the prospect was gloomy — was terrible!” She surveyed it and shuddered! The distresses too of Monsieur and Madame La Motte, whom she loved with the most lively affection, formed no inconsiderable part of her’s.
Sometimes she looked back to her father; but in him she only saw an enemy, from whom she must fly: this remembrance heightened her sorrow; yet it was not the recollection of the suffering he had occasioned her, by which she was so much afflicted, as by the sense of his unkindness: she wept bitterly. At length, with that artless piety, which innocence only knows, she addressed the Supreme Being, and resigned herself to his care. Her mind then gradually became peaceful and re-assured, and soon after she sunk to repose.