By Honore De Balzac
Translated By Ellen Marriage
To D. W.
La Grenadiere is a little house on the right bank of the Loire as you go
down stream, about a mile below the bridge of Tours. At this point the
river, broad as a lake, and covered with scattered green islands, flows
between two lines of cliff, where country houses built uniformly of white
stone stand among their gardens and vineyards. The finest fruit in the
world ripens there with a southern exposure. The patient toil of many
generations has cut terraces in the cliff, so that the face of the rock
reflects the rays of the sun, and the produce of hot climates may be grown
out of doors in an artificially high temperature.
A church spire, rising out of one of the shallower dips in the line of
cliffs, marks the little village of Saint-Cyr, to which the scattered
houses all belong. And yet a little further the Choisille flows into the
Loire, through a fertile valley cut in the long low downs.
La Grenadiere itself, half-way up the hillside, and about a hundred paces
from the church, is one of those old-fashioned houses dating back some two
or three hundred years, which you find in every picturesque spot in
Touraine. A fissure in the rock affords convenient space for a flight of
steps descending gradually to the "dike"—the local name for the
embankment made at the foot of the cliffs to keep the Loire in its bed,
and serve as a causeway for the highroad from Paris to Nantes. At the top
of the steps a gate opens upon a narrow stony footpath between two
terraces, for here the soil is banked up, and walls are built to prevent
landslips. These earthworks, as it were, are crowned with trellises and
espaliers, so that the steep path that lies at the foot of the upper wall
is almost hidden by the trees that grow on the top of the lower, upon
which it lies. The view of the river widens out before you at every step
as you climb to the house.
At the end you come to a second gateway, a Gothic archway covered with
simple ornament, now crumbling into ruin and overgrown with wildflowers—moss
and ivy, wallflowers and pellitory. Every stone wall on the hillside is
decked with this ineradicable plant-life, which springs up along the
cracks afresh with new wreaths for every time of year.
The worm-eaten gate gives into a little garden, a strip of turf, a few
trees, and a wilderness of flowers and rose bushes—a garden won from
the rock on the highest terrace of all, with the dark, old balustrade
along its edge. Opposite the gateway, a wooden summer-house stands against
the neighboring wall, the posts are covered with jessamine and
honeysuckle, vines and clematis.
The house itself stands in the middle of this highest garden, above a
vine-covered flight of steps, with an arched doorway beneath that leads to
vast cellars hollowed out in the rock. All about the dwelling trellised
vines and pomegranate-trees (the grenadiers, which give the name to
the little close) are growing out in the open air. The front of the house
consists of two large windows on either side of a very rustic-looking
house door, and three dormer windows in the roof—a slate roof with
two gables, prodigiously high-pitched in proportion to the low
ground-floor. The house walls are washed with yellow color; and door, and
first-floor shutters, all the Venetian shutters of the attic windows, all
are painted green.
Entering the house, you find yourself in a little lobby with a crooked
staircase straight in front of you. It is a crazy wooden structure, the
spiral balusters are brown with age, and the steps themselves take a new
angle at every turn. The great old-fashioned paneled dining-room, floored
with square white tiles from Chateau-Regnault, is on your right; to the
left is the sitting-room, equally large, but here the walls are not
paneled; they have been covered instead with a saffron-colored paper,
bordered with green. The walnut-wood rafters are left visible, and the
intervening spaces filled with a kind of white plaster.
The first story consists of two large whitewashed bedrooms with stone
chimney-pieces, less elaborately carved than those in the rooms beneath.
Every door and window is on the south side of the house, save a single
door to the north, contrived behind the staircase to give access to the
vineyard. Against the western wall stands a supplementary timber-framed
structure, all the woodwork exposed to the weather being fledged with
slates, so that the walls are checkered with bluish lines. This shed (for
it is little more) is the kitchen of the establishment. You can pass from
it into the house without going outside; but, nevertheless, it boasts an
entrance door of its own, and a short flight of steps that brings you to a
deep well, and a very rustical-looking pump, half hidden by water-plants
and savin bushes and tall grasses. The kitchen is a modern addition,
proving beyond doubt that La Grenadiere was originally nothing but a
simple vendangeoir—a vintage-house belonging to townsfolk in
Tours, from which Saint-Cyr is separated by the vast river-bed of the
Loire. The owners only came over for the day for a picnic, or at the
vintage-time, sending provisions across in the morning, and scarcely ever
spent the night there except during the grape harvest; but the English
settled down on Touraine like a cloud of locusts, and La Grenadiere must,
of course, be completed if it was to find tenants. Luckily, however, this
recent appendage is hidden from sight by the first two trees of a
lime-tree avenue planted in a gully below the vineyards.
There are only two acres of vineyard at most, the ground rising at the
back of the house so steeply that it is no very easy matter to scramble up
among the vines. The slope, covered with green trailing shoots, ends
within about five feet of the house wall in a ditch-like passage always
damp and cold and full of strong growing green things, fed by the drainage
of the highly cultivated ground above, for rainy weather washes down the
manure into the garden on the terrace.
A vinedresser's cottage also leans against the western gable, and is in
some sort a continuation of the kitchen. Stone walls or espaliers surround
the property, and all sorts of fruit-trees are planted among the vines; in
short, not an inch of this precious soil is wasted. If by chance man
overlooks some dry cranny in the rocks, Nature puts in a fig-tree, or sows
wildflowers or strawberries in sheltered nooks among the stones.
Nowhere else in all the world will you find a human dwelling so humble and
yet so imposing, so rich in fruit, and fragrant scents, and wide views of
country. Here is a miniature Touraine in the heart of Touraine—all
its flowers and fruits and all the characteristic beauty of the land are
fully represented. Here are grapes of every district, figs and peaches and
pears of every kind; melons are grown out of doors as easily as licorice
plants, Spanish broom, Italian oleanders, and jessamines from the Azores.
The Loire lies at your feet. You look down from the terrace upon the
ever-changing river nearly two hundred feet below; and in the evening the
breeze brings a fresh scent of the sea, with the fragrance of far-off
flowers gathered upon its way. Some cloud wandering in space, changing its
color and form at every moment as it crosses the pure blue of the sky, can
alter every detail in the widespread wonderful landscape in a thousand
ways, from every point of view. The eye embraces first of all the south
bank of the Loire, stretching away as far as Amboise, then Tours with its
suburbs and buildings, and the Plessis rising out of the fertile plain;
further away, between Vouvray and Saint-Symphorien, you see a sort of
crescent of gray cliff full of sunny vineyards; the only limits to your
view are the low, rich hills along the Cher, a bluish line of horizon
broken by many a chateau and the wooded masses of many a park. Out to the
west you lose yourself in the immense river, where vessels come and go,
spreading their white sails to the winds which seldom fail them in the
wide Loire basin. A prince might build a summer palace at La Grenadiere,
but certainly it will always be the home of a poet's desire, and the
sweetest of retreats for two young lovers—for this vintage house,
which belongs to a substantial burgess of Tours, has charms for every
imagination, for the humblest and dullest as well as for the most
impassioned and lofty. No one can dwell there without feeling that
happiness is in the air, without a glimpse of all that is meant by a
peaceful life without care or ambition. There is that in the air and the
sound of the river that sets you dreaming; the sands have a language, and
are joyous or dreary, golden or wan; and the owner of the vineyard may sit
motionless amid perennial flowers and tempting fruit, and feel all the
stir of the world about him.
If an Englishman takes the house for the summer, he is asked a thousand
francs for six months, the produce of the vineyard not included. If the
tenant wishes for the orchard fruit, the rent is doubled; for the vintage,
it is doubled again. What can La Grenadiere be worth, you wonder; La
Grenadiere, with its stone staircase, its beaten path and triple terrace,
its two acres of vineyard, its flowering roses about the balustrades, its
worn steps, well-head, rampant clematis, and cosmopolitan trees? It is
idle to make a bid! La Grenadiere will never be in the market; it was
brought once and sold, but that was in 1690; and the owner parted with it
for forty thousand francs, reluctant as any Arab of the desert to
relinquish a favorite horse. Since then it has remained in the same
family, its pride, its patrimonial jewel, its Regent diamond. "While you
behold, you have and hold," says the bard. And from La Grenadiere you
behold three valleys of Touraine and the cathedral towers aloft in air
like a bit of filigree work. How can one pay for such treasures? Could one
ever pay for the health recovered there under the linden-trees?
In the spring of one of the brightest years of the Restoration, a lady
with her housekeeper and her two children (the oldest a boy thirteen years
old, the youngest apparently about eight) came to Tours to look for a
house. She saw La Grenadiere and took it. Perhaps the distance from the
town was an inducement to live there.
She made a bedroom of the drawing-room, gave the children the two rooms
above, and the housekeeper slept in a closet behind the kitchen. The
dining-room was sitting-room and drawing-room all in one for the little
family. The house was furnished very simply but tastefully; there was
nothing superfluous in it, and no trace of luxury. The walnut-wood
furniture chosen by the stranger lady was perfectly plain, and the whole
charm of the house consisted in its neatness and harmony with its
It was rather difficult, therefore, to say whether the strange lady (Mme.
Willemsens, as she styled herself) belonged to the upper middle or higher
classes, or to an equivocal, unclassified feminine species. Her plain
dress gave rise to the most contradictory suppositions, but her manners
might be held to confirm those favorable to her. She had not lived at
Saint-Cyr, moreover, for very long before her reserve excited the
curiosity of idle people, who always, and especially in the country, watch
anybody or anything that promises to bring some interest into their narrow
Mme. Willemsens was rather tall; she was thin and slender, but delicately
shaped. She had pretty feet, more remarkable for the grace of her instep
and ankle than for the more ordinary merit of slenderness; her gloved
hands, too, were shapely. There were flitting patches of deep red in a
pale face, which must have been fresh and softly colored once. Premature
wrinkles had withered the delicately modeled forehead beneath the coronet
of soft, well-set chestnut hair, invariably wound about her head in two
plaits, a girlish coiffure which suited the melancholy face. There was a
deceptive look of calm in the dark eyes, with the hollow, shadowy circles
about them; sometimes, when she was off her guard, their expression told
of secret anguish. The oval of her face was somewhat long; but happiness
and health had perhaps filled and perfected the outlines. A forced smile,
full of quiet sadness, hovered continually on her pale lips; but when the
children, who were always with her, looked up at their mother, or asked
one of the incessant idle questions which convey so much to a mother's
ears, then the smile brightened, and expressed the joys of a mother's
love. Her gait was slow and dignified. Her dress never varied; evidently
she had made up her mind to think no more of her toilette, and to forget a
world by which she meant no doubt to be forgotten. She wore a long, black
gown, confined at the waist by a watered-silk ribbon, and by way of scarf
a lawn handkerchief with a broad hem, the two ends passed carelessly
through her waistband. The instinct of dress showed itself in that she was
daintily shod, and gray silk stockings carried out the suggestion of
mourning in this unvarying costume. Lastly, she always wore a bonnet after
the English fashion, always of the same shape and the same gray material,
and a black veil. Her health apparently was extremely weak; she looked
very ill. On fine evenings she would take her only walk, down to the
bridge of Tours, bringing the two children with her to breathe the fresh,
cool air along the Loire, and to watch the sunset effects on a landscape
as wide as the Bay of Naples or the Lake of Geneva.
During the whole time of her stay at La Grenadiere she went but twice into
Tours; once to call on the headmaster of the school, to ask him to give
her the names of the best masters of Latin, drawing, and mathematics; and
a second time to make arrangements for the children's lessons. But her
appearance on the bridge of an evening, once or twice a week, was quite
enough to excite the interest of almost all the inhabitants of Tours, who
make a regular promenade of the bridge. Still, in spite of a kind of spy
system, by which no harm is meant, a provincial habit bred of want of
occupation and the restless inquisitiveness of the principal society,
nothing was known for certain of the newcomer's rank, fortune, or real
condition. Only, the owner of La Grenadiere told one or two of his friends
that the name under which the stranger had signed the lease (her real
name, therefore, in all probability) was Augusta Willemsens, Countess of
Brandon. This, of course, must be her husband's name. Events, which will
be narrated in their place, confirmed this revelation; but it went no
further than the little world of men of business known to the landlord.
So Madame Willemsens was a continual mystery to people of condition. Hers
was no ordinary nature; her manners were simple and delightfully natural,
the tones of her voice were divinely sweet,—this was all that she
suffered others to discover. In her complete seclusion, her sadness, her
beauty so passionately obscured, nay, almost blighted, there was so much
to charm, that several young gentlemen fell in love; but the more sincere
the lover, the more timid he became; and besides, the lady inspired awe,
and it was a difficult matter to find enough courage to speak to her.
Finally, if a few of the bolder sort wrote to her, their letters must have
been burned unread. It was Mme. Willemsens' practice to throw all the
letters which she received into the fire, as if she meant that the time
spent in Touraine should be untroubled by any outside cares even of the
slightest. She might have come to the enchanting retreat to give herself
up wholly to the joy of living.
The three masters whose presence was allowed at La Grenadiere spoke with
something like admiring reverence of the touching picture that they saw
there of the close, unclouded intimacy of the life led by this woman and
The two little boys also aroused no small interest. Mothers could not see
them without a feeling of envy. Both children were like Mme. Willemsens,
who was, in fact, their mother. They had the transparent complexion and
bright color, the clear, liquid eyes, the long lashes, the fresh outlines,
the dazzling characteristics of childish beauty.
The elder, Louis-Gaston, had dark hair and fearless eyes. Everything about
him spoke as plainly of robust, physical health as his broad, high brow,
with its gracious curves, spoke of energy of character. He was quick and
alert in his movements, and strong of limb, without a trace of
awkwardness. Nothing took him unawares, and he seemed to think about
everything that he saw.
Marie-Gaston, the other child, had hair that was almost golden, though a
lock here and there had deepened to the mother's chestnut tint.
Marie-Gaston was slender; he had the delicate features and the subtle
grace so charming in Mme. Willemsens. He did not look strong. There was a
gentle look in his gray eyes; his face was pale, there was something
feminine about the child. He still wore his hair in long, wavy curls, and
his mother would not have him give up embroidered collars, and little
jackets fastened with frogs and spindle-shaped buttons; evidently she took
a thoroughly feminine pleasure in the costume, a source of as much
interest to the mother as to the child. The elder boy's plain white
collar, turned down over a closely fitting jacket, made a contrast with
his brother's clothing, but the color and material were the same; the two
brothers were otherwise dressed alike, and looked alike.
No one could see them without feeling touched by the way in which Louis
took care of Marie. There was an almost fatherly look in the older boy's
eyes; and Marie, child though he was, seemed to be full of gratitude to
Louis. They were like two buds, scarcely separated from the stem that bore
them, swayed by the same breeze, lying in the same ray of sunlight; but
the one was a brightly colored flower, the other somewhat bleached and
pale. At a glance, a word, an inflection in their mother's voice, they
grew heedful, turned to look at her and listened, and did at once what
they were bidden, or asked, or recommended to do. Mme. Willemsens had so
accustomed them to understand her wishes and desires, that the three
seemed to have their thoughts in common. When they went for a walk, and
the children, absorbed in their play, ran away to gather a flower or to
look at some insect, she watched them with such deep tenderness in her
eyes, that the most indifferent passer-by would feel moved, and stop and
smile at the children, and give the mother a glance of friendly greeting.
Who would not have admired the dainty neatness of their dress, their
sweet, childish voices, the grace of their movements, the promise in their
faces, the innate something that told of careful training from the cradle?
They seemed as if they had never shed tears nor wailed like other
children. Their mother knew, as it were, by electrically swift intuition,
the desires and the pains which she anticipated and relieved. She seemed
to dread a complaint from one of them more than the loss of her soul.
Everything in her children did honor to their mother's training. Their
threefold life, seemingly one life, called up vague, fond thoughts; it was
like a vision of the dreamed-of bliss of a better world. And the three, so
attuned to each other, lived in truth such a life as one might picture for
them at first sight—the ordered, simple, and regular life best
suited for a child's education.
Both children rose an hour after daybreak and repeated a short prayer, a
habit learned in their babyhood. For seven years the sincere petition had
been put up every morning on their mother's bed, and begun and ended by a
kiss. Then the two brothers went through their morning toilet as
scrupulously as any pretty woman; doubtless they had been trained in
habits of minute attention to the person, so necessary to health of body
and mind, habits in some sort conducive to a sense of wellbeing.
Conscientiously they went through their duties, so afraid were they lest
their mother should say when she kissed them at breakfast-time, "My
darling children, where can you have been to have such black finger-nails
already?" Then the two went out into the garden and shook off the dreams
of the night in the morning air and dew, until sweeping and dusting
operations were completed, and they could learn their lessons in the
sitting-room until their mother joined them. But although it was
understood that they must not go to their mother's room before a certain
hour, they peeped in at the door continually; and these morning inroads,
made in defiance of the original compact, were delicious moments for all
three. Marie sprang upon the bed to put his arms around his idolized
mother, and Louis, kneeling by the pillow, took her hand in his. Then came
inquiries, anxious as a lover's, followed by angelic laughter, passionate
childish kisses, eloquent silences, lisping words, and the little ones'
stories interrupted and resumed by a kiss, stories seldom finished, though
the listener's interest never failed.
"Have you been industrious?" their mother would ask, but in tones so sweet
and so kindly that she seemed ready to pity laziness as a misfortune, and
to glance through tears at the child who was satisfied with himself.
She knew that the thought of pleasing her put energy into the children's
work; and they knew that their mother lived for them, and that all her
thoughts and her time were given to them. A wonderful instinct, neither
selfishness nor reason, perhaps the first innocent beginnings of sentiment
teaches children to know whether or not they are the first and sole
thought, to find out those who love to think of them and for them. If you
really love children, the dear little ones, with open hearts and unerring
sense of justice, are marvelously ready to respond to love. Their love
knows passion and jealousy and the most gracious delicacy of feeling; they
find the tenderest words of expression; they trust you—put an entire
belief in you. Perhaps there are no undutiful children without undutiful
mothers, for a child's affection is always in proportion to the affection
that it receives—in early care, in the first words that it hears, in
the response of the eyes to which a child first looks for love and life.
All these things draw them closer to the mother or drive them apart. God
lays the child under the mother's heart, that she may learn that for a
long time to come her heart must be its home. And yet—there are
mothers cruelly slighted, mothers whose sublime, pathetic tenderness meets
only a harsh return, a hideous ingratitude which shows how difficult it is
to lay down hard-and-fast rules in matters of feeling.
Here, not one of all the thousand heart ties that bind child and mother
had been broken. The three were alone in the world; they lived one life, a
life of close sympathy. If Mme. Willemsens was silent in the morning,
Louis and Marie would not speak, respecting everything in her, even those
thoughts which they did not share. But the older boy, with a precocious
power of thought, would not rest satisfied with his mother's assertion
that she was perfectly well. He scanned her face with uneasy forebodings;
the exact danger he did not know, but dimly he felt it threatening in
those purple rings about her eyes, in the deepening hollows under them,
and the feverish red that deepened in her face. If Marie's play began to
tire her, his sensitive tact was quick to discover this, and he would call
to his brother:
"Come, Marie! let us run in to breakfast, I am hungry!"
But when they reached the door, he would look back to catch the expression
on his mother's face. She still could find a smile for him, nay, often
there were tears in her eyes when some little thing revealed her child's
exquisite feeling, a too early comprehension of sorrow.
Mme. Willemsens dressed during the children's early breakfast and game of
play; she was coquettish for her darlings; she wished to be pleasing in
their eyes; for them she would fain be in all things lovely, a gracious
vision, with the charm of some sweet perfume of which one can never have
She was always dressed in time to hear their lessons, which lasted from
ten till three, with an interval at noon for lunch, the three taking the
meal together in the summer-house. After lunch the children played for an
hour, while she—poor woman and happy mother—lay on a long sofa
in the summer-house, so placed that she could look out over the soft,
ever-changing country of Touraine, a land that you learn to see afresh in
all the thousand chance effects produced by daylight and sky and the time
The children scampered through the orchard, scrambled about the terraces,
chased the lizards, scarcely less nimble than they; investigating flowers
and seeds and insects, continually referring all questions to their
mother, running to and fro between the garden and the summer-house.
Children have no need of toys in the country, everything amuses them.
Mme. Willemsens sat at her embroidery during their lessons. She never
spoke, nor did she look at masters or pupils; but she followed attentively
all that was said, striving to gather the sense of the words to gain a
general idea of Louis' progress. If Louis asked a question that puzzled
his master, his mother's eyes suddenly lighted up, and she would smile and
glance at him with hope in her eyes. Of Marie she asked little. Her desire
was with her eldest son. Already she treated him, as it were,
respectfully, using all a woman's, all a mother's tact to arouse the
spirit of high endeavor in the boy, to teach him to think of himself as
capable of great things. She did this with a secret purpose, which Louis
was to understand in the future; nay, he understood it already.
Always, the lesson over, she went as far as the gate with the master, and
asked strict account of Louis' progress. So kindly and so winning was her
manner, that his tutors told her the truth, pointing out where Louis was
weak, so that she might help him in his lessons. Then came dinner, and
play after dinner, then a walk, and lessons were learned till bedtime.
So their days went. It was a uniform but full life; work and amusements
left them not a dull hour in the day. Discouragement and quarreling were
impossible. The mother's boundless love made everything smooth. She taught
her little sons moderation by refusing them nothing, and submission by
making them see underlying Necessity in its many forms; she put heart into
them with timely praise; developing and strengthening all that was best in
their natures with the care of a good fairy. Tears sometimes rose to her
burning eyes as she watched them play, and thought how they had never
caused her the slightest vexation. Happiness so far-reaching and complete
brings such tears, because for us it represents the dim imaginings of
Heaven which we all of us form in our minds.
Those were delicious hours spent on that sofa in the garden-house, in
looking out on sunny days over the wide stretches of river and the
picturesque landscape, listening to the sound of her children's voices as
they laughed at their own laughter, to the little quarrels that told most
plainly of their union of heart, of Louis' paternal care of Marie, of the
love that both of them felt for her. They spoke English and French equally
well (they had had an English nurse since their babyhood), so their mother
talked to them in both languages; directing the bent of their childish
minds with admirable skill, admitting no fallacious reasoning, no bad
principle. She ruled by kindness, concealing nothing, explaining
everything. If Louis wished for books, she was careful to give him
interesting yet accurate books—books of biography, the lives of
great seamen, great captains, and famous men, for little incidents in
their history gave her numberless opportunities of explaining the world
and life to her children. She would point out the ways in which men,
really great in themselves, had risen from obscurity; how they had started
from the lowest ranks of society, with no one to look to but themselves,
and achieved noble destinies.
These readings, and they were not the least useful of Louis' lessons, took
place while little Marie slept on his mother's knee in the quiet of the
summer night, and the Loire reflected the sky; but when they ended, this
adorable woman's sadness always seemed to be doubled; she would cease to
speak, and sit motionless and pensive, and her eyes would fill with tears.
"Mother, why are you crying?" Louis asked one balmy June evening, just as
the twilight of a soft-lit night succeeded to a hot day.
Deeply moved by his trouble, she put her arm about the child's neck and
drew him to her.
"Because, my boy, the lot of Jameray Duval, the poor and friendless lad
who succeeded at last, will be your lot, yours and your brother's, and I
have brought it upon you. Before very long, dear child, you will be alone
in the world, with no one to help or befriend you. While you are still
children, I shall leave you, and yet, if only I could wait till you are
big enough and know enough to be Marie's guardian! But I shall not live so
long. I love you so much that it makes me very unhappy to think of it.
Dear children, if only you do not curse me some day!——"
"But why should I curse you some day, mother?"
"Some day," she said, kissing him on the forehead, "you will find out that
I have wronged you. I am going to leave you, here, without money, without"—and
she hesitated—"without a father," she added, and at the word she
burst into tears and put the boy from her gently. A sort of intuition told
Louis that his mother wished to be alone, and he carried off Marie, now
half awake. An hour later, when his brother was in bed, he stole down and
out to the summer-house where his mother was sitting.
"Louis! come here."
The words were spoken in tones delicious to his heart. The boy sprang to
his mother's arms, and the two held each other in an almost convulsive
"Cherie," he said at last, the name by which he often called her,
finding that even loving words were too weak to express his feeling, "cherie,
why are you afraid that you are going to die?"
"I am ill, my poor darling; every day I am losing strength, and there is
no cure for my illness; I know that."
"What is the matter with you?"
"Something that I ought to forget; something that you must never know.—You
must not know what caused my death."
The boy was silent for a while. He stole a glance now and again at his
mother; and she, with her eyes raised to the sky, was watching the clouds.
It was a sad, sweet moment. Louis could not believe that his mother would
die soon, but instinctively he felt trouble which he could not guess. He
respected her long musings. If he had been rather older, he would have
read happy memories blended with thoughts of repentance, the whole story
of a woman's life in that sublime face—the careless childhood, the
loveless marriage, a terrible passion, flowers springing up in storm and
struck down by the thunderbolt into an abyss from which there is no
"Darling mother," Louis said at last, "why do you hide your pain from me?"
"My boy, we ought to hide our troubles from strangers," she said; "we
should show them a smiling face, never speak of ourselves to them, nor
think about ourselves; and these rules, put in practice in family life,
conduce to its happiness. You will have much to bear one day! Ah me! then
think of your poor mother who died smiling before your eyes, hiding her
sufferings from you, and you will take courage to endure the ills of
She choked back her tears, and tried to make the boy understand the
mechanism of existence, the value of money, the standing and consideration
that it gives, and its bearing on social position; the honorable means of
gaining a livelihood, and the necessity of a training. Then she told him
that one of the chief causes of her sadness and her tears was the thought
that, on the morrow of her death, he and Marie would be left almost
resourceless, with but a slender stock of money, and no friend but God.
"How quick I must be about learning!" cried Louis, giving her a piteous,
"Oh! how happy I am!" she said, showering kisses and tears on her son. "He
understands me!—Louis," she went on, "you will be your brother's
guardian, will you not? You promise me that? You are no longer a child!"
"Yes, I promise," he said; "but you are not going to die yet—say
that you are not going to die!"
"Poor little ones!" she replied, "love for you keeps the life in me. And
this country is so sunny, the air is so bracing, perhaps——"
"You make me love Touraine more than ever," said the child.
From that day, when Mme. Willemsens, foreseeing the approach of death,
spoke to Louis of his future, he concentrated his attention on his work,
grew more industrious, and less inclined to play than heretofore. When he
had coaxed Marie to read a book and to give up boisterous games, there was
less noise in the hollow pathways and gardens and terraced walks of La
Grenadiere. They adapted their lives to their mother's melancholy. Day by
day her face was growing pale and wan, there were hollows now in her
temples, the lines in her forehead grew deeper night after night.
August came. The little family had been five months at La Grenadiere, and
their whole life was changed. The old servant grew anxious and gloomy as
she watched the almost imperceptible symptoms of slow decline in the
mistress, who seemed to be kept in life by an impassioned soul and intense
love of her children. Old Annette seemed to see that death was very near.
That mistress, beautiful still, was more careful of her appearance than
she had ever been; she was at pains to adorn her wasted self, and wore
paint on her cheeks; but often while she walked on the upper terrace with
the children, Annette's wrinkled face would peer out from between the
savin trees by the pump. The old woman would forget her work, and stand
with wet linen in her hands, scarce able to keep back her tears at the
sight of Mme. Willemsens, so little like the enchanting woman she once had
The pretty house itself, once so gay and bright, looked melancholy; it was
a very quiet house now, and the family seldom left it, for the walk to the
bridge was too great an effort for Mme. Willemsens. Louis had almost
identified himself, as it were, with his mother, and with his suddenly
developed powers of imagination he saw the weariness and exhaustion under
the red color, and constantly found reasons for taking some shorter walk.
So happy couples coming to Saint-Cyr, then the Petite Courtille of Tours,
and knots of folk out for their evening walk along the "dike," saw a pale,
thin figure dressed in black, a woman with a worn yet bright face, gliding
like a shadow along the terraces. Great suffering cannot be concealed. The
vinedresser's household had grown quiet also. Sometimes the laborer and
his wife and children were gathered about the door of their cottage, while
Annette was washing linen at the well-head, and Mme. Willemsens and the
children sat in the summer-house, and there was not the faintest sound in
those gardens gay with flowers. Unknown to Mme. Willemsens, all eyes grew
pitiful at the sight of her, she was so good, so thoughtful, so dignified
with those with whom she came in contact.
And as for her.—When the autumn days came on, days so sunny and
bright in Touraine, bringing with them grapes and ripe fruits and
healthful influences which must surely prolong life in spite of the
ravages of mysterious disease—she saw no one but her children,
taking the utmost that the hour could give her, as if each hour had been
Louis had worked at night, unknown to his mother, and made immense
progress between June and September. In algebra he had come as far as
equations with two unknown quantities; he had studied descriptive
geometry, and drew admirably well; in fact, he was prepared to pass the
entrance examination of the Ecole polytechnique.
Sometimes of an evening he went down to the bridge of Tours. There was a
lieutenant there on half-pay, an Imperial naval officer, whose manly face,
medal, and gait had made an impression on the boy's imagination, and the
officer on his side had taken a liking to the lad, whose eyes sparkled
with energy. Louis, hungering for tales of adventure, and eager for
information, used to follow in the lieutenant's wake for the chance of a
chat with him. It so happened that the sailor had a friend and comrade in
the colonel of a regiment of infantry, struck off the rolls like himself;
and young Louis-Gaston had a chance of learning what life was like in camp
or on board a man-of-war. Of course, he plied the veterans with questions;
and when he had made up his mind to the hardships of their rough callings,
he asked his mother's leave to take country walks by way of amusement.
Mme. Willemsens was beyond measure glad that he should ask; the boy's
astonished masters had told her that he was overworking himself. So Louis
went for long walks. He tried to inure himself to fatigue, climbed the
tallest trees with incredible quickness, learned to swim, watched through
the night. He was not like the same boy; he was a young man already, with
a sunburned face, and a something in his expression that told of deep
When October came, Mme. Willemsens could only rise at noon. The sunshine,
reflected by the surface of the Loire, and stored up by the rocks, raised
the temperature of the air till it was almost as warm and soft as the
atmosphere of the Bay of Naples, for which reason the faculty recommend
the place of abode. At mid-day she came out to sit under the shade of
green leaves with the two boys, who never wandered from her now. Lessons
had come to an end. Mother and children wished to live the life of heart
and heart together, with no disturbing element, no outside cares. No tears
now, no joyous outcries. The elder boy, lying in the grass at his mother's
side, basked in her eyes like a lover and kissed her feet. Marie, the
restless one, gathered flowers for her, and brought them with a subdued
look, standing on tiptoe to put a girlish kiss on her lips. And the pale
woman, with the great tired eyes and languid movements, never uttered a
word of complaint, and smiled upon her children, so full of life and
health—it was a sublime picture, lacking no melancholy autumn pomp
of yellow leaves and half-despoiled branches, nor the softened sunlight
and pale clouds of the skies of Touraine.
At last the doctor forbade Mme. Willemsens to leave her room. Every day it
was brightened by the flowers that she loved, and her children were always
with her. One day, early in November, she sat at the piano for the last
time. A picture—a Swiss landscape—hung above the instrument;
and at the window she could see her children standing with their heads
close together. Again and again she looked from the children to the
landscape, and then again at the children. Her face flushed, her fingers
flew with passionate feeling over the ivory keys. This was her last great
day, an unmarked day of festival, held in her own soul by the spirit of
her memories. When the doctor came, he ordered her to stay in bed. The
alarming dictum was received with bewildered silence.
When the doctor had gone, she turned to the older boy.
"Louis," she said, "take me out on the terrace, so that I may see my
country once more."
The boy gave his arm at those simply uttered words, and brought his mother
out upon the terrace; but her eyes turned, perhaps unconsciously, to
heaven rather than to the earth, and indeed, it would have been hard to
say whether heaven or earth was the fairer—for the clouds traced
shadowy outlines, like the grandest Alpine glaciers, against the sky. Mme.
Willemsens' brows contracted vehemently; there was a look of anguish and
remorse in her eyes. She caught the children's hands, and clutched them to
a heavily-throbbing heart.
"'Parentage unknown!'" she cried, with a look that went to their hearts.
"Poor angels, what will become of you? And when you are twenty years old,
what strict account may you not require of my life and your own?"
She put the children from her, and leaning her arms upon the balustrade,
stood for a while hiding her face, alone with herself, fearful of all
eyes. When she recovered from the paroxysm, she saw Louis and Marie
kneeling on either side of her, like two angels; they watched the
expression of her face, and smiled lovingly at her.
"If only I could take that smile with me!" she said, drying her eyes.
Then she went into the house and took to the bed, which she would only
leave for her coffin.
A week went by, one day exactly like another. Old Annette and Louis took
it in turns to sit up with Mme. Willemsens, never taking their eyes from
the invalid. It was the deeply tragical hour that comes in all our lives,
the hour of listening in terror to every deep breath lest it should be the
last, a dark hour protracted over many days. On the fifth day of that
fatal week the doctor interdicted flowers in the room. The illusions of
life were going one by one.
Then Marie and his brother felt their mother's lips hot as fire beneath
their kisses; and at last, on the Saturday evening, Mme. Willemsens was
too ill to bear the slightest sound, and her room was left in disorder.
This neglect for a woman of refined taste, who clung so persistently to
the graces of life, meant the beginning of the death-agony. After this,
Louis refused to leave his mother. On Sunday night, in the midst of the
deepest silence, when Louis thought that she had grown drowsy, he saw a
white, moist hand move the curtain in the lamplight.
"My son!" she said. There was something so solemn in the dying woman's
tones, that the power of her wrought-up soul produced a violent reaction
on the boy; he felt an intense heat pass through the marrow of his bones.
"What is it, mother?"
"Listen! To-morrow all will be over for me. We shall see each other no
more. To-morrow you will be a man, my child. So I am obliged to make some
arrangements, which must remain a secret, known only to us. Take the key
of my little table. That is it. Now open the drawer. You will find two
sealed papers to the left. There is the name of LOUIS on one, and on the
"Here they are, mother."
"Those are your certificates of birth, darling; you will want them. Give
them to our poor, old Annette to keep for you; ask her for them when you
need them. Now," she continued, "is there not another paper as well,
something in my handwriting?"
"Yes, mother," and Louis began to read, "Marie Willemsens, born at——"
"That is enough," she broke in quickly, "do not go on. When I am dead,
give that paper, too, to Annette, and tell her to send it to the registrar
at Saint-Cyr; it will be wanted if my certificate of death is to be made
out in due form. Now find writing materials for a letter which I will
dictate to you."
When she saw that he was ready to begin, and turned towards her for the
words, they came from her quietly:—
"Monsieur le Comte, your wife, Lady Brandon, died at Saint-Cyr, near
Tours, in the department of Indre-et-Loire. She forgave you."
"Sign yourself——" she stopped, hesitating and perturbed.
"Are you feeling worse?" asked Louis.
"Put 'Louis-Gaston,'" she went on.
She sighed, then she went on.
"Seal the letter, and direct it. To Lord Brandon, Brandon Square, Hyde
Park, London, Angleterre.—That is right. When I am dead, post the
letter in Tours, and prepay the postage.—Now," she added, after a
pause, "take the little pocketbook that you know, and come here, my dear
child.... There are twelve thousand francs in it," she said, when Louis
had returned to her side. "That is all your own. Oh me! you would have
been better off if your father——"
"My father," cried the boy, "where is he?"
"He is dead," she said, laying her finger on her lips; "he died to save my
honor and my life."
She looked upwards. If any tears had been left to her, she would have wept
"Louis," she continued, "swear to me, as I lie here, that you will forget
all that you have written, all that I have told you."
"Kiss me, dear angel."
She was silent for a long while, she seemed to be drawing strength from
God, and to be measuring her words by the life that remained in her.
"Listen," she began. "Those twelve thousand francs are all that you have
in the world. You must keep the money upon you, because when I am dead the
lawyers will come and seal everything up. Nothing will be yours then, not
even your mother. All that remains for you to do will be to go out, poor
orphan children, God knows where. I have made Annette's future secure. She
will have an annuity of a hundred crowns, and she will stay at Tours no
doubt. But what will you do for yourself and your brother?"
She raised herself, and looked at the brave child, standing by her
bedside. There were drops of perspiration on his forehead, he was pale
with emotion, and his eyes were dim with tears.
"I have thought it over, mother," he answered in a deep voice. "I will
take Marie to the school here in Tours. I will give ten thousand francs to
our old Annette, and ask her to take care of them, and to look after
Marie. Then, with the remaining two thousand francs, I will go to Brest,
and go to sea as an apprentice. While Marie is at school, I will rise to
be a lieutenant on board a man-of-war. There, after all, die in peace, my
mother; I shall come back again a rich man, and our little one shall go to
the Ecole polytechnique, and I will find a career to suit his bent."
A gleam of joy shone in the dying woman's eyes. Two tears brimmed over,
and fell over her fevered cheeks; then a deep sigh escaped between her
lips. The sudden joy of finding the father's spirit in the son, who had
grown all at once to be a man, almost killed her.
"Angel of heaven," she cried, weeping, "by one word you have effaced all
my sorrows. Ah! I can bear them.—This is my son," she said, "I bore,
I reared this man," and she raised her hands above her, and clasped them
as if in ecstasy, then she lay back on the pillow.
"Mother, your face is growing pale!" cried the lad.
"Some one must go for a priest," she answered, with a dying voice.
Louis wakened Annette, and the terrified old woman hurried to the
parsonage at Saint-Cyr.
When morning came, Mme. Willemsens received the sacrament amid the most
touching surroundings. Her children were kneeling in the room, with
Annette and the vinedresser's family, simple folk, who had already become
part of the household. The silver crucifix, carried by a chorister, a
peasant child from the village, was lifted up, and the dying mother
received the Viaticum from an aged priest. The Viaticum! sublime word,
containing an idea yet more sublime, an idea only possessed by the
apostolic religion of the Roman church.
"This woman has suffered greatly!" the old cure said in his simple way.
Marie Willemsens heard no voices now, but her eyes were still fixed upon
her children. Those about her listened in terror to her breathing in the
deep silence; already it came more slowly, though at intervals a deep sigh
told them that she still lived, and of a struggle within her; then at last
it ceased. Every one burst into tears except Marie. He, poor child, was
still too young to know what death meant.
Annette and the vinedresser's wife closed the eyes of the adorable woman,
whose beauty shone out in all its radiance after death. Then the women
took possession of the chamber of death, removed the furniture, wrapped
the dead in her winding-sheet, and laid her upon the couch. They lit
tapers about her, and arranged everything—the crucifix, the sprigs
of box, and the holy-water stoup—after the custom of the
countryside, bolting the shutters and drawing the curtains. Later the
curate came to pass the night in prayer with Louis, who refused to leave
his mother. On Tuesday morning an old woman and two children and a
vinedresser's wife followed the dead to her grave. These were the only
mourners. Yet this was a woman whose wit and beauty and charm had won a
European reputation, a woman whose funeral, if it had taken place in
London, would have been recorded in pompous newspaper paragraphs, as a
sort of aristocratic rite, if she had not committed the sweetest of
crimes, a crime always expiated in this world, so that the pardoned spirit
may enter heaven. Marie cried when they threw the earth on his mother's
coffin; he understood that he should see her no more.
A simple, wooden cross, set up to mark her grave, bore this inscription,
due to the cure of Saint-Cyr:—
AN UNHAPPY WOMAN,
WHO DIED AT THE AGE OF THIRTY-SIX.
KNOWN IN HEAVEN BY THE NAME OF AUGUSTA.
Pray for her!
When all was over, the children came back to La Grenadiere to take a last
look at their home; then, hand in hand, they turned to go with Annette,
leaving the vinedresser in charge, with directions to hand over everything
duly to the proper authorities.
At this moment, Annette called to Louis from the steps by the kitchen
door, and took him aside with, "Here is madame's ring, Monsieur Louis."
The sight of this vivid remembrance of his dead mother moved him so deeply
that he wept. In his fortitude, he had not even thought of this supreme
piety; and he flung his arms round the old woman's neck. Then the three
set out down the beaten path, and the stone staircase, and so to Tours,
without turning their heads.
"Mamma used to come there!" Marie said when they reached the bridge.
Annette had a relative, a retired dressmaker, who lived in the Rue de la
Guerche. She took the two children to this cousin's house, meaning that
they should live together thenceforth. But Louis told her of his plans,
gave Marie's certificate of birth and the ten thousand francs into her
keeping, and the two went the next morning to take Marie to school.
Louis very briefly explained his position to the headmaster, and went.
Marie came with him as far as the gateway. There Louis gave solemn parting
words of the tenderest counsel, telling Marie that he would now be left
alone in the world. He looked at his brother for a moment, and put his
arms about him, took one more long look, brushed a tear from his eyes, and
went, turning again and again till the very last to see his brother
standing there in the gateway of the school.
A month later Louis-Gaston, now an apprentice on board a man-of-war, left
the harbor of Rochefort. Leaning over the bulwarks of the corvette Iris,
he watched the coast of France receding swiftly till it became
indistinguishable from the faint blue horizon line. In a little while he
felt that he was really alone, and lost in the wide ocean, lost and alone
in the world and in life.
"There is no need to cry, lad; there is a God for us all," said an old
sailor, with rough kindliness in his thick voice.
The boy thanked him with pride in his eyes. Then he bowed his head, and
resigned himself to a sailor's life. He was a father.
ANGOULEME, August, 1832.