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"A Secret of the Confessional."
BY HESBA STRETTON.
For a period of some five-and-twenty years, a business connection had existed between my father, John Ashton of Manchester, and a French manufacturer, owning several cotton mills in Basse Normandy, whose name was Réné Clauzel. From the increasing importance of our transactions with M. Clauzel, it was evident that our French compeer was steadily prospering: much in the same way as ourselves-our own prosperity having reached a height attained by few, and surpassed only by three or four of our merchant princes. A few years ago, M. Clauzel, upon the occasion of his second marriage, spent a week with us in the neighbourhood of our wealthy city. From that time he was urgent with my father to pay him a visit in his remote corner of Normandy; but John Ashton had no taste for the discomforts of foreign travel, among a people of whose language he did not understand a syllable; and the thought of a sojourn, even for a few days, in the house of a French Papist, as he called M. Clauzel, with all the severity of a strict Protestant Dissenter, was repulsive to him, and equally so to my mother. With each year, however, the invitations of M. Clauzel became more importunate, and at length I suggested that a compromise might be effected by my father accepting them for me, his only son. M. Clauzel's reply to this proposal overflowed with French suavity. If anything could console him for the chagrin of abandoning the hope of receiving my father, it would be the happiness that would be bis when he welcomed his son. Madame Clauzel, he added, was dead; and he was again a widower, with two children, a boy and a girl. At first thought it seemed by no means a lively prospect to spend three or four weeks, M. Clauzel would not hear of less, in the home of a French widower with two children, and in a remote part of the province where tourists never dreamed of penetrating. But it was the early part of summer, and everywhere the country would wear the freshness of its first beauty. Manchester was putting off its winter mud for its summer dust, sultry and suffocating; and each morning as I encountered the din of its narrow streets I
longed, with an almost womanish longing, for a breath of sweet-scented country air, and an hour of serene country silence.
The railway carried me only to within ten leagues of my destination, and left me at six o'clock in the evening at Falaise, the terminus of the line in that direction. A carriage was waiting for me, a curious oldfashioned conveyance, with two horses, whose collars hung with tiny bells, kept up an odd, and somewhat pleasant jingle as they trotted leisurely along the roads, which passed over wide table-lands, and down into deep valleys, and up along the steep sides of the opposite slopes, until I began to wonder when we should reach the end of our journey. It was of course broad daylight when we left Falaise ; but I watched the sun go down behind an horizon of marvellous clearness, and the light linger in the sky, and die away in almost perceptible shades of falling darkness, until the driver was compelled to mount his lamp; and it was past eleven o'clock when we turned down an avenue of pine-trees, to which there was no gate, but which was plainly the drive to the château of M. Clauzel.
The moon had risen during the last hour, and was just showing itself above the pointed tips of the fir-trees, and was pouring upon the whole front of the dwelling such a flood of silvery light as we could never hope to see in England. It was simply a handsome French mansion, with the usual prodigality of windows, and glass-doors, and verandahs, and a broad terrace with steps leading down to a lawn, which was bounded by forest trees. Upon the steps stood a group awaiting my arrival, which I saw as distinctly as by daylight, yet with a certain atmosphere of uncanniness and weirdness about it, which I felt then, and feel still as I recall it. In the front stood M. Clauzel, an erect and vigorous old man, with long hair of the most blanched white, which seemed almost to sparkle in the strong light. A step or two behind him, and above him, was a tall and slender girl, dressed in pure white, and with a white hood drawn nearly over her face; while at her side stood a priest in his long, black robe, with a large hat completely concealing his features. A moment only the group stood thus; the next, it was broken up and changed. M. Clauzel hastened to meet me, the priest uncovered his head, and the girl introduced to me as Mademoiselle Clauzel, executed an exquisitely-graceful salutation, which made me feel an awkward Englishman to my backbone.
My visit proved more pleasurable than I had anticipated. The country round was a poetic, and an idealized Lancashire. There were picturesque cottages, with eaves six feet deep, and outside staircases,
standing alone or in little clusters, in the midst of orchards; but from every open door, the familiar sound of the shuttle and treddle greeted my ear. The mills, smaller and simpler than our own, were all built in wonderfully-beautiful sites, where a glassy river worked their great wheels, and where breezy hills rose all round them, clothed with coppices of silver beeches and feathery acacias. Old customs, and antique costumes, and dying superstitions still dwelt among the people; but their dialect was all but incomprehensible to me. Indeed, though I reckoned myself a good French scholar, I found it difficult to convey to my new friends the finest and most pleasant of my impressions and sentiments. In all language there is a felt deficiency and meagreness when one wishes to express a thought; but I knew the language of my hosts only as it were at a distance: I had not been cradled in it, and fed with it; and though it was easy enough to narrate circumstances and facts, it was almost impossible to communicate those emotions, which one reveals only by familiar, half-playful, half-sad phrases, that leave so much to be guessed by mere sympathy of feeling.
So far I told all in my letters home; but here I come to the point upon which, until now, I have kept a strict silence. The family of M. Clauzel consisted, as I said, of a son and daughter-the daughter was the child of his first wife, a girl of eighteen or nineteen; but the son was an infant, not yet three years of age. It would be impossible to describe Désirée, for every hour of the day found her changed, not more in toilette than in beauty and manner. But she was always captivating; whether devout and grave in her severely-plain robe, or gay and fantastic in some brilliantly-coloured drapery, or rustic and simple in a country costume, there was an indescribable piquancy and fascination in her metamorphoses. It was impossible for me to guess when I parted from her in what character she would choose to appear next. It was not simply a change of toilette, but a change also of thought and temperament, as if she kept a variety of mental suits in her wardrobe, which she could assume at pleasure. Is it a wonder that by the time the term of my visit had expired, I was in no humour to return to England and to Manchester?
Yet I owed, in all honour, the homage I was paying to Désirée to the girl at home, whom my father and mother regarded as their future daughter. Whenever the thought of her came across my mind, and it did often, I felt the hot blood burn in my face, and my pulse beat the quicker from the stinging sense of shame. I remembered with pain, and misgivings, and qualms of conscience the words I had whis
pered to her when I said good-bye-words too strong for mere friendship, though they did not definitely commit me as a lover. But my scruples were light as air before the charms of Désirée; and though I found it impossible to whisper half-intelligible phrases in her ear as I had done to Margaret, she did not remain unconscious or ignorant of my love. When I began to speak falteringly of my departure, I was arrested by the vehement assertion of M. Clauzel, that he would not suffer his house to be desolated by my absence for some time to come, and I resigned myself willingly to his vehemence.
The curé, M. Lalande, was a man of good family, well read, and the very model of politesse. The first day or two I could not keep myself from hovering upon the borders of a discussion with him upon our differing creeds, with an Englishman's instinctive propensity for controversy, but he skilfully evaded the combat, and made himself so agreeable upon other topics, that our differences in faith fell quite into the background. It was only as my passion for Désirée deepened that I began to feel a jealous dislike of his close intimacy and authority in the family of my host. It might be all right for Désirée to call him 66 father," and for him to address her as " daughter"; but the man was not more than five years older than myself, and it was with no easy or agreeable feelings that I witnessed the influence he possessed over her. Looking back upon that time which has completed itself, which is now as a tale that has been told, all unfolded and finished, I can see what a mad fool I was. There was not the slightest hope in life that my parents, Protestants of a sect most distinctly opposed to Popery, would ever consent to receive Désirée as their daughter-in-law. Even if they had not set their hearts upon Margaret, it was impossible that my mother, with her sober and sedate habits of thought inherited from her Quaker lineage, would be fascinated, as I was, by Désirée's coquettish charms; or that my father, with national and religious prejudices so strong that he had been blind in his contempt to any risk for his son in a foreign land, would hear a word in favour of a Frenchwoman, and a Roman Catholic. I could not even then altogether conceal these facts from myself, but the fetters they imposed upon me were no stronger than a thread of gossamer.
Though I was an inmate of the house, there was no chance of seeing Désirée alone; the etiquette of French custom forbade that. Whenever her father was absent, a woman who had been her fostermother, and who still lived in the house, glided quietly into the room, or took a seat on the verandah, or followed us about the ground within
earshot, never losing sight of her charge. 'Phrasie was a sombre, dark-eyed, dark-browed woman, who had never, Désirée once whispered to me, recovered from the loss of her own child, whose life had been sacrificed to her duties as foster-mother to her young mistress. Her attachment to Désirée amounted almost to a monomania, yet I never saw her smile at the gayest of Désirée's sallies. She held a responsible position in the family, partly as housekeeper and partly as bonne to M. Clauzel's little son, who was entirely under her charge. Between the curé and this woman there existed one of those mysterious antipathies, which are felt, more or less, by every one of us at some period of our lives. M. Lalande owned it to me frankly, saying that the very sight of her gloomy and sinister face among his congregation would make his voice falter, and his thoughts centre upon her; and that none of his duties as priest were so irksome as to receive the confession, and grant absolution to this woman. On my part I felt no aversion to 'Phrasie, and it was evident that I was a favourite with her.
I had been in Normandy about a month, when M. Clauzel invited me to accompany him on his weekly tour of his mills, which were four in number, and built at some distance from each other upon the banks of a rapid but narrow river, running along the bottom of a valley which seemed almost interminable. We found ourselves alone together, and secure from being overheard; and soon I became aware that my polite host was cautiously sounding me as to the position and wealth of our home.
"Have not monsieur and madame, your parents," said he at length, "yet thought of finding a wife for their son ?"
"There is a young lady," I answered frankly, with a pang, as I thought of them and of Margaret, "whom they would rejoice to receive as their daughter."
The old man's face fell, and he did not speak again for some minutes. "Is the contract concluded?" he asked.
"Our English customs are not like yours," I said. "I have not bound myself, and it is for me to seek my own wife. You must have seen-you cannot be astonished-you must know that I love mademoiselle, your daughter."
M. Clauzel's face brightened again, but an expression of perplexity still dwelt upon it.
"This English lady," said he, " has she a large dowry ?"
I named Margaret's fortune-a magnificent one it was, and once more the features of the old man grew overcast and troubled.