I was the cherished one, the last comfort, of these dying women. I have been in pitched fights, my lord, and I never knew such courage. It was all done smiling, in the tone of good society; belle maman was the name I was taught to give to each; and for a day or two the new "pretty mamma" would make much of me, show me off, teach me the minuet, and to say my prayers; and then, with a tender embrace, would go the way of her predecessors, smiling. There were some that wept too. There was a childhood! All the time Monsieur de Culemberg kept his eye on me, and would have had me out of the Abbaye and in his own protection, but my "pretty mammas" one after another resisted the idea. Where could I be safer? they argued; and what was to become of them without the darling of the prison? Well, it was soon shown how safe I was! The dreadful day of the massacre came; the prison was overrun; none paid attention to me, not even the last of my "pretty mammas," for she had met another fate. I was wandering distracted, when I was found by some one in the interests of Monsieur de Culemberg. I understand he was sent on purpose; I believe, in order to reach the interior of the prison, he had set his hand to nameless barbarities: such was the price paid for my worthless, whimpering little life! He gave me his hand; it was wet, and mine was reddened; he led me unresisting. I remember but the one circumstance of my flight--it was my last view of my last pretty mamma. Shall I describe it to you?' I asked the Count, with a sudden fierceness.
'Avoid unpleasant details,' observed my great-uncle gently.
At these words a sudden peace fell upon me. I had been angry with the man before; I had not sought to spare him; and now, in a moment, I saw that there was nothing to spare. Whether from natural heartlessness or extreme old age, the soul was not at home; and my benefactor, who had kept the fire lit in my room for a month past--my only relative except Alain, whom I knew already to be a hired spy--had trodden out the last sparks of hope and interest.
'Certainly,' said I; 'and, indeed, the day for them is nearly over. I was taken to Monsieur de Culemberg's,--I presume, sir, that you know the Abbe de Culemberg?'
He indicated assent without opening his eyes.
'He was a very brave and a very learned man--'
'And a very holy one,' said my uncle civilly.
'And a very holy one, as you observe,' I continued. 'He did an infinity of good, and through all the Terror kept himself from the guillotine. He brought me up, and gave me such education as I have. It was in his house in the country at Dammarie, near Melun, that I made the acquaintance of your agent, Mr. Vicary, who lay there in hiding, only to fall a victim at the last to a gang of chauffeurs.'
'That poor Mr. Vicary!' observed my uncle. 'He had been many times in my interests to France, and this was his first failure. Quel charmant homme, n'est-ce pas?'
'Infinitely so,' said I. 'But I would not willingly detain you any further with a story, the details of which it must naturally be more or less unpleasant for you to hear. Suffice it that, by M. de Culemberg's own advice, I said farewell at eighteen to that kind preceptor and his books, and entered the service of France; and have since then carried arms in such a manner as not to disgrace my family.'
'You narrate well; vous aves la voix chaude,' said my uncle, turning on his pillows as if to study me. 'I have a very good account of you by Monsieur de Mauseant, whom you helped in Spain. And you had some education from the Abbe de Culemberg, a man of a good house? Yes, you will do very well. You have a good manner and a handsome person, which hurts nothing. We are all handsome in the family; even I myself, I have had my successes, the memories of which still charm me. It is my intention, my nephew, to make of you my heir. I am not very well content with my other nephew, Monsieur le Vicomte: he has not been respectful, which is the flattery due to age.