The gorgon’s head
It was a heavy mass of building, that chateau of Monsieur the Marquis, with a large stone courtyard before it, and two stone sweeps of staircase meeting in a stone terrace before the principal door. A stony business altogether, with heavy stone balustrades, and stone urns, and stone flowers, and stone faces of men, and stone heads of lions, in all directions. As if the Gorgon’s head had surveyed it, when it was finished, two centuries ago.
Up the broad flight of shallow steps, Monsieur the Marquis, flambeau preceded, went from his carriage, sufficiently disturbing the darkness to elicit loud remonstrance from an owl in the roof of the great pile of stable building away among the trees. All else was so quiet, that the flambeau carried up the steps, and the other flambeau held at the great door, burnt as if they were in a close room of state, instead of being in the open night-air. Other sound than the owl’s voice there was none, save the falling of a fountain into its stone basin; for, it was one of those dark nights that hold their breath by the hour together, and then heave a long low sigh, and hold their breath again.
The great door clanged behind him, and Monsieur the Marquis crossed a hall grim with certain old boar-spears, swords, and knives of the chase; grimmer with certain heavy riding-rods and riding-whips, of which many a peasant, gone to his benefactor Death, had felt the weight when his lord was angry.
Avoiding the larger rooms, which were dark and made fast for the night, Monsieur the Marquis, with his flambeau-bearer going on before, went up the staircase to a door in a corridor. This thrown open, admitted him to his own private apartment of three rooms: his bed-chamber and two others. High vaulted rooms with cool uncarpeted floors, great dogs upon the hearths for the burning of wood in winter time, and all luxuries befitting the state of a marquis in a luxurious age and country. The fashion of the last Louis but one, of the line that was never to break- the fourteenth Louis- was conspicuous in their rich furniture; but, it was diversified by many objects that were illustrations of old pages in the history of France.
A supper-table was laid for two, in the third of the rooms; a round room, in one of the chateau’s four extinguisher-topped towers. A small lofty room, with its window wide open, and the wooden jalousie-blinds closed, so that the dark night only showed in slight horizontal lines of black, alternating with their broad lines of stone colour.
“My nephew,” said the Marquis, glancing at the supper preparation; “they said he was not arrived.”
Nor was he; but, he had been expected with Monseigneur.
“Ah! It is not probable he will arrive to-night; nevertheless, leave the table as it is. I shall be ready in a quarter of an hour.”
In a quarter of an hour Monseigneur was ready, and sat down alone to his sumptuous and choice supper. His chair was opposite to the window, and he had taken his soup, and was raising his glass of Bordeaux to his lips, when he put it down.
“What is that?” he calmly asked, looking with attention at the horizontal lines of black and stone colour.
“Outside the blinds. Open the blinds.”
It was done.
“Monseigneur, it is nothing. The trees and the night are all that are here.”
The servant who spoke, had thrown the blinds wide, had looked out into the vacant darkness, and stood with that blank behind him, looking round for instructions.
“Good,” said the imperturbable master. “Close them again.”
That was done too, and the Marquis went on with his supper. He was half way through it, when he again stopped with his glass in his hand, hearing the sound of wheels. It came on briskly, and came up to the front of the chateau.
“Ask who is arrived.”
It was the nephew of Monseigneur. He had been some few leagues behind Monseigneur, early in the afternoon. He had diminished the distance rapidly, but not so rapidly as to come up with Monseigneur on the road. He had heard of Monseigneur, at the posting-houses, as being before him.
He was to be told (said Monseigneur) that supper awaited him then and there, and that he was prayed to come to it. In a little while he came. He had been known in England as Charles Darnay.
Monseigneur received him in a courtly manner, but they did not shake hands.
“You left Paris yesterday, sir?” he said to Monseigneur, as he took his seat at table.
“Yesterday. And you?”
“I come direct.”
“You have been a long time coming,” said the Marquis, with a smile.
“On the contrary; I come direct.”
“Pardon me! I mean, not a long time on the journey; a long time intending the journey.”
“I have been detained by”- the nephew stopped a moment in his answer- “various business.”
“Without doubt,” said the polished uncle.
So long as a servant was present, no other words passed between them. When coffee had been served and they were alone together, the nephew, looking at the uncle and meeting the eyes of the face that was like a fine mask, opened a conversation.
“I have come back, sir, as you anticipate, pursuing the object that took me away. It carried me into great and unexpected peril; but it is a sacred object, and if it had carried me to death I hope it would have sustained me.
“Not to death,” said the uncle; “it is not necessary to say, to death.”
“I doubt, sir,” returned the nephew, “whether, if it had carried me to the utmost brink of death, you would have cared to stop me there.”
The deepened marks in the nose, and the lengthening of the fine straight lines in the cruel face, looked ominous as to that; the uncle made a graceful gesture of protest, which was so clearly a slight form of good breeding that it was not reassuring.
“Indeed, sir,” pursued the nephew, “for anything I know, you may have expressly worked to give a more suspicious appearance to the suspicious circumstances that surrounded me.”
“No, no, no,” said the uncle, pleasantly.
“But, however that may be,” resumed the nephew, glancing at him with deep distrust, “I know that your diplomacy would stop me by any means, and would know no scruple as to means.”
“My friend, I told you so,” said the uncle, with a fine pulsation in the two marks. “Do me the favour to recall that I told you so, long ago.”
“I recall it.”
“Thank you,” said the Marquis- very sweetly indeed.
His tone lingered in the air, almost like the tone of a musical instrument.
“In effect, sir,” pursued the nephew, “I believe it to be at once your bad fortune, and my good fortune, that has kept me out of a prison in France here.”
“I do not quite understand,” returned the uncle, sipping his coffee. “Dare I ask you to explain?”
“I believe that if you were not in disgrace with the Court, and had not been overshadowed by that cloud for years past, a letter de cachet would have sent me to some fortress indefinitely.”
“It is possible,” said the uncle, with great calmness. “For the honour of the family, I could even resolve to incommode you to that extent. Pray excuse me!”
“I perceive that, happily for me, the Reception of the day before yesterday was, as usual, a cold one,” observed the nephew.
“I would not say happily, my friend,” returned the uncle, with refined politeness; “I would not be sure of that. A good opportunity for consideration, surrounded by the advantages of solitude, might influence your destiny to far greater advantage than you influence it for yourself. But it is useless to discuss the question. I am, as you say, at a disadvantage. These little instruments of correction, these gentle aids to the power and honour of families, these slight favours that might so incommode you, are only to be obtained now by interest and importunity. They are sought by so many, and they are granted (comparatively) to so few! It used not to be so, but France in all such things is changed for the worse. Our not remote ancestors held the right of life and death over the surrounding vulgar. From this room, many such dogs have been taken out to be hanged; in the next room (my bedroom), one fellow, to our knowledge, was poniarded on the spot for professing some insolent delicacy respecting his daughter- his daughter? We have lost many privileges; a new philosophy has become the mode; and the assertion of our station, in these days, might (I do not go so far as to say would, but might) cause us real inconvenience. All very bad, very bad!”
The Marquis took a gentle little pinch of snuff, and shook his head; as elegantly despondent as he could becomingly be of a country still containing himself, that great means of regeneration.
“We have so asserted our station, both in the old time and in the modern time also,” said the nephew, gloomily, “that I believe our name to be more detested than any name in France.”
“Let us hope so,” said the uncle. “Detestation of the high is the involuntary homage of the low.”
“There is not,” pursued the nephew, in his former tone, “a face I can look at, in all this country round about us, which looks at me with any deference on it but the dark deference of fear and slavery.”
“A compliment,” said the Marquis, “to the grandeur of the family, merited by the manner in which the family has sustained its grandeur. Hah!” And he took another gentle little pinch of snuff, and lightly crossed his legs.
But, when his nephew, leaning an elbow on the table, covered his eyes thoughtfully and dejectedly with his hand, the fine mask looked at him sideways with a stronger concentration of keenness, closeness, and dislike, than was comportable with its wearer’s assumption of indifference.
“Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,” observed the Marquis, “will keep the dogs obedient to the whip, as long as this roof,” looking up to it, “shuts out the sky.”
That might not be so long as the Marquis supposed. If a picture of the chateau as it was to be a very few years hence, and of fifty like it as they too were to be a very few years hence, could have been shown to him that night, he might have been at a loss to claim his own from the ghastly, fire-charred, plunder-wrecked ruins. As for the roof he vaunted, he might have found that shutting out the sky in a new way- to wit, for ever, from the eyes of the bodies into which its lead was fired, out of the barrels of a hundred thousand muskets.
“Meanwhile,” said the Marquis, “I will preserve the honour and repose of the family. if you will not. But you must be fatigued. Shall we terminate our conference for the night?”
“A moment more.”
“An hour, if you please.”
“Sir,” said the nephew, “we have done wrong, and are reaping the fruits of wrong.”
“We have done wrong?” repeated the Marquis, with an inquiring smile, and delicately pointing, first to his nephew, then to himself.
“Our family; our honourable family, whose honour is of so much account to both of us, in such different ways. Even in my father’s time, we did a world of wrong, injuring every human creature who came between us and our pleasure, whatever it was. Why need I speak of my father’s time, when it is equally yours? Can I separate my father’s twin-brother, joint inheritor, and next successor, from himself?”
“Death has done that!” said the Marquis.
“And has left me,” answered the nephew, “bound to a system that is frightful to me, responsible for it, but powerless in it; seeking to execute the last request of my dear mother’s lips, and obey the last look of my dear mother’s eyes, which implored me to have mercy and to redress; and tortured by seeking assistance and power in vain.”
“Seeking them from me, my nephew,” said the Marquis, touching him on the breast with his forefinger- they were now standing by the hearth- ”you will for ever seek them in vain, be assured.”
Every fine straight line in the clear whiteness of his face, was cruelly, craftily, and closely compressed, while he stood looking quietly at his nephew, with his snuff-box in his hand. Once again he touched him on the breast, as though his finger were the fine point of a small sword, with which, in delicate finesse, he ran him through the body, and said,
“My friend, I will die, perpetuating the system under which I have lived.”
When he had said it, he took a culminating pinch of snuff, and put his box in his pocket.
“Better to be a rational creature,” he added then, after ringing a small bell on the table, “and accept your natural destiny. But you are lost, Monsieur Charles, I see.”
“This property and France are lost to me,” said the nephew, sadly; “I renounce them.”
“Are they both yours to renounce? France may be, but is the property? It is scarcely worth mentioning; but, is it yet?”
“I had no intention, in the words I used, to claim it yet. If it passed to me from you, to-morrow—”
“Which I have the vanity to hope is not probable.”
”-or twenty years hence—”
“You do me too much honour,” said the Marquis; “still, I prefer that supposition.”
”-I would abandon it, and live otherwise and elsewhere. It is little to relinquish. What is it but a wilderness of misery and ruin!”
“Hah!” said the Marquis, glancing round the luxurious room.
“To the eye it is fair enough, here; but seen in its integrity, under the sky, and by the daylight, it is a crumbling tower of waste, mismanagement, extortion, debt, mortgage, oppression, hunger, nakedness, and suffering.”
“Hah!” said the Marquis again, in a well-satisfied manner.
“If it ever becomes mine, it shall be put into some hands better qualified to free it slowly (if such a thing is possible) from the weight that drags it down, so that the miserable people who cannot leave it and who have been long wrung to the last point of endurance, may, in another generation, suffer less; but it is not for me. There is a curse on it, and on all this land.”
“And you?” said the uncle. “Forgive my curiosity; do you, under your new philosophy, graciously intend to live?”
“I must do, to live, what others of my countrymen, even with nobility at their backs, may have to do some day- work.”
“In England, for example?”
“Yes. The family honour, sir, is safe from me in this country. The family name can suffer from me in no other, for I bear it in no other.”
The ringing of the bell had caused the adjoining bed-chamber to be lighted. It now shone brightly, through the door of communication. The Marquis looked that way, and listened for the retreating step of his valet.
“England is very attractive to you, seeing how indifferently you have prospered there,” he observed then, turning his calm face to his nephew with a smile.
“I have already said, that for my prospering there, I am sensible I may be indebted to you, sir. For the rest, it is my Refuge.”
“They say, those boastful English, that it is the Refuge of many. You know a compatriot who has found a Refuge there? A Doctor?”
“With a daughter?”
“Yes,” said the Marquis. “You are fatigued. Good night!”
As he bent his head in his most courtly manner, there was a secrecy in his smiling face, and he conveyed an air of mystery to those words, which struck the eyes and ears of his nephew forcibly. At the same time, the thin straight lines of the setting of the eyes, and the thin straight lips, and the markings in the nose, curved with a sarcasm that looked handsomely diabolic.
“Yes,” repeated the Marquis. “A Doctor with a daughter. Yes. So commences the new philosophy! You are fatigued. Good night!”
It would have been of as much avail to interrogate any stone face outside the chateau as to interrogate that face of his. The nephew looked at him, in vain, in passing on to the door.
“Good night!” said the uncle. “I look to the pleasure of seeing you again in the morning. Good repose! Light Monsieur my nephew to his chamber there!- And burn Monsieur my nephew in his bed, if you will,” he added to himself, before he rang his little bell again, and summoned his valet to his own bedroom.
The valet come and gone, Monsieur the Marquis walked to and fro in his loose chamber-robe, to prepare himself gently for sleep, that hot still night. Rustling about the room, his softly-slippered feet making no noise on the floor, he moved like a refined tiger:- looked like some enchanted marquis of the impenitently wicked sort, in story, whose periodical change into tiger form was either just going off, or just coming on.
He moved from end to end of his voluptuous bedroom, looking again at the scraps of the day’s journey that came unbidden into his mind; the slow toil up the hill at sunset, the setting sun, the descent, the mill, the prison on the crag, the little village in the hollow, the peasants at the fountain, and the mender of roads with his blue cap pointing out the chain under the carriage. That fountain suggested the Paris fountain, the little bundle lying on the step, the women bending over it, and the tall man with his arms up, crying, “Dead!”
“I am cool now,” said Monsieur the Marquis, “and may go to bed.”
So, leaving only one light burning on the large hearth, he let his thin gauze curtains fall around him, and heard the night break its silence with a long sigh as he composed himself to sleep.
The stone faces on the outer walls stared blindly at the black night for three heavy hours; for three heavy hours, the horses in the stables rattled at their racks, the dogs barked, and the owl made a noise with very little resemblance in it to the noise conventionally assigned to the owl by men-poets. But it is the obstinate custom of such creatures hardly ever to say what is set down for them.
For three heavy hours, the stone faces of the chateau, lion and human, stared blindly at the night. Dead darkness lay on all the landscape, dead darkness added its own hush to the hushing dust on all the roads. The burial-place had got to the pass that its little heaps of poor grass were undistinguishable from one another; the figure on the Cross might have come down, for anything that could be seen of it. In the village, taxers and taxed were fast asleep. Dreaming, perhaps, of banquets, as the starved usually do, and of ease and rest, as the driven slave and the yoked ox may, its lean inhabitants slept soundly, and were fed and freed.
The fountain in the village flowed unseen and unheard, and the fountain at the chateau dropped unseen and unheard- both melting away, like the minutes that were falling from the spring of Time- through three dark hours. Then, the grey water of both began to be ghostly in the light, and the eyes of the stone faces of the chateau were opened.
Lighter and lighter, until at last the sun touched the tops of the still trees, and poured its radiance over the hill. In the glow, the water of the chateau fountain seemed to turn to blood, and the stone faces crimsoned. The carol of the birds was loud and high, and, on the weather-beaten sill of the great window of the bed-chamber of Monsieur the Marquis, one little bird sang its sweetest song with all its might. At this, the nearest stone face seemed to stare amazed, and, with open mouth and dropped under-jaw, looked awe-stricken.
Now, the sun was full up, and movement began in the village. Casement windows opened, crazy doors were unbarred, and people came forth shivering- chilled, as yet, by the new sweet air. Then began the rarely lightened toil of the day among the village population. Some, to the fountain; some, to the fields; men and women here, to dig and delve; men and women there, to see to the poor live stock, and lead the bony cows out, to such pasture as could be found by the roadside. In the church and at the Cross, a kneeling figure or two; attendant on the latter prayers, the led cow, trying for a breakfast among the weeds at its foot.
The chateau awoke later, as became its quality, but awoke gradually and surely. First, the lonely boar-spears and knives of the chase had been reddened as of old; then, had gleamed trenchant in the morning sunshine; now, doors and windows were thrown open, horses in their stables looked round over their shoulders at the light and freshness pouring in at doorways, leaves sparkled and rustled at iron-grated windows, dogs pulled hard at their chains, and reared impatient to be loosed.
All these trivial incidents belonged to the routine of life, and the return of morning. Surely, not so the ringing of the great bell of the chateau, nor the running up and down the stairs; nor the hurried figures on the terrace; nor the booting and tramping here and there and everywhere, nor the quick saddling of horses and riding away?
What winds conveyed this hurry to the grizzled mender of roads, already at work on the hill-top beyond the village, with his day’s dinner (not much to carry) lying in a bundle that it was worth no crow’s while to peck at, on a heap of stones? Had the birds, carrying some grains of it to a distance, dropped one over him as they sow chance seeds? Whether or no, the mender of roads ran, on the sultry morning, as if for his life, down the hill, knee-high in dust, and never stopped till he got to the fountain.
All the people of the village were at the fountain, standing about in their depressed manner, and whispering low, but showing no other emotions than grim curiosity and surprise. The led cows, hastily brought in and tethered to anything that would hold them, were looking stupidly on, or lying down chewing the cud of nothing particularly repaying their trouble, which they had picked up in their interrupted saunter. Some of the people of the chateau, and some of those of the posting-house, and all the taxing authorities, were armed more or less, and were crowded on the other side of the little street in a purposeless way, that was highly fraught with nothing. Already, the mender of roads had penetrated into the midst of a group of fifty particular friends, and was smiting himself in the breast with his blue cap. What did all this portend, and what portended the swift hoisting-up of Monsieur Gabelle behind a servant on horseback, and the conveying away of the said Gabelle (double-laden though the horse was), at a gallop, like a new version of the German ballad of Leonora?
It portended that there was one stone face too many, up at the chateau.
The Gorgon had surveyed the building again in the night, and had added the one stone face wanting; the stone face for which it had waited through about two hundred years.
It lay back on the pillow of Monsieur the Marquis. It was like a fine mask, suddenly startled, made angry, and petrified. Driven home into the heart of the stone figure attached to it, was a knife. Round its hilt was a frill of paper, on which was scrawled:
“Drive him fast to his tomb. This, from JACQUES.”