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Title: Monsieur de Guise Author: Perley Poore Sheehan * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0603661h.html Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit Date first posted: July 2006 Date most recently updated: July 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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That any one should live in the center of Cedar Swamp was in itself so singular as to set all sorts of queer ideas to running through my head.
A more sinister morass I had never seen. It was as beautiful and deadly as one of its own red mocassins, as treacherous and fascinating.
It was a tangle of cypress and cedar almost thirty miles square, most of it under water--a maze of jungle-covered islands and black bayous. There were alligators and panthers, bear and wild pig. There were groans and grunts and queer cries at night, and silence, dead silence by day.
That was Cedar Swamp as I knew it after a week of solitary hunting there. I no longer missed the sun. My eyes had become used to the perpetual twilight. My nerves no longer bothered me when I stepped into opaque water, or watched a section of gliding snake. But the silence was getting to be more than I could bear. It was too uncanny.
And now, just after I had noticed it, and wondered at it for the hundredth time, I heard a voice.
It was low and clear--that of a woman who sings alto. There were four or five notes like the fragment of a strange song. And then, before I had recovered from the shock of it, there was silence again.
I was up to my knees in water at the time, wading a narrow branch between two islands. I must have stood there for a full minute waiting for the voice to resume, but the silence closed in on me deeper than ever. With a little shiver creeping over one part of my body after another, I stole ashore.
The island was one of the highest I had yet encountered. I had not taken a dozen steps up through the dank growth of its shelving shore before I found a deeply worn path.
This, I could see, ran down to the water-front on one direction, where I caught a glimpse of a boat-house masked by trees. I turned and followed the path in the other direction up a gentle slope.
As I advanced, the jungle around me thinned out and became almost park-like. There were open stretches of meadow and clumps of trees, suggesting a garden. But I was so intent on discovering the owner of the voice that the wonder of this did not at first impress me. I had, moreover, an eery, uneasy sensation of being watched.
I walked slowly. I carried my gun with affected carelessness. I looked around me as though I were a mere tourist dropped in to see the sights.
I had thus covered, perhaps, a quarter of a mile, when the path turned into an avenue of cabbage-palmetto, at the further end of which I saw a house.
It was large and white with a pillared porch, such as they used to build before the war. It was shaded by a magnificent grove of live-oak trees. There were beds of geranium and roses in front, and clusters of crepe-myrtle and flowering oleander on a well-clipped lawn.
It all gave an impression of infinite care, of painstaking up-keep, of neatness and wealth, yet, there was not a soul in sight. Not a servant was there. No dog barked, I saw no horses, no chickens, no pigeons, nor sheep; no familiar animate emblem whatever of the prosperous farm.
I stood in the presence of this silent and lonely magnificence with a feeling that was not exactly fear, but rather stupefaction. For a moment I was persuaded that I had emerged from the great swamp into some unknown plantation of its littoral.
But a moment was enough to convince me that this could not be. I was, without the slightest doubt, almost at the exact center of the morass. I was too familiar with its circumference and general contour to be wrong as to that. For a dozen miles at least, in every direction, Cedar Swamp surrounded this island of mystery with its own mysterious forests and bayous.
Once again I was acutely aware of being stared at. Almost at the same instant a man's voice addressed me from behind my back.
"Monsieur," it asked, "why do you hesitate?"
I might as well confess it right away--I believe in ghosts. I have seen too many things in my life that were not to be explained by the commonly accepted laws of nature. I have lived too much among the half-civilized and learned too much of their odd wisdom to recognize any hard and fast definition of what is real and what is not.
From the moment I heard that bit of song in the swamp, I felt that I was passing from the commonplace into the weird. My succeeding impressions had confirmed this feeling.
And now, when I heard the voice behind me: "Monsieur, why do you hcsitate?"--I was not sure that it was the voice of a human being at all. I turned slowly, my mind telling me that I should see no one.
It was with a distinct feeling of relief, therefore, that I saw a small, pale, well-dressed old man smiling at me as though he had read my secret thoughts.
His face was cleanly shaven and bloodless. His head, partly covered by a black velvet skull-cap, was extremely large. His snow-white hair was silky and long. His eves, which were deeply sunken, were large and dark. His appearance, as well as the question which he had just put to mc suggested the foreigner. He was not alone un-American; he appeared to be of another century, as well.
I said something about intruding. He made a brusk gesture, almost of impatience, and, telling me to follow him, started for the house.
It was as though I was an expected guest. Only the absence of servants maintained that feeling of the bizarre, which never left me.
The interior of the house was in keeping with its outward appearance--sumptuous and immaculate. My host led me to the door of a vast chamber on the first floor, motioned me to enter, and, standing at the door, said:
"Monsieur, luncheon will be served when you reappear. Pray, make yourself at home."
Then he left me.
Two details of this room impressed mc: the superlative richness of the toilet articles, all of which were engraved with a coat-of-arms, and the portrait of a woman, by Largilliére. All women were beautiful to Largilliére, but in the present instance he had surpassed himself.
The gentle, aristocratic face, with its tender, lustrous eyes, was the most alluring thing I had ever seen. At the bottom of the massive frame was the inscription: "Anne-Marie, Duchesse de Guise. Anno 1733."
I was still marveling at the miracle which had brought such an apparition to the heart of an American swamp when I heard a light step in the hallway, and I knew that my host was awaiting me.
The luncheon, which was served cold in a splendid dining-room, had been laid for two. I wondered at this, for still no servant appeared, and surely I could not have been expected. And my host added to my mystification rather than lessened it when he said: "Monsieur, I offer you the place usually reserved for my wife.".Apart from this simple statement, the meal was completed in silence. Now and then I thought I surprised him, nodding gravely, as though someone else where present.
I suspected him several times of speaking in an undertone. But, my mind was so preoccupied with the inexplicable happenings of the preceding hour that I was not in a condition to attack fresh mysteries now.
He scarcely touched his food. Indeed, his presence there seemed to be more in the nature of an act of courtesy than for the purpose of taking nourishment. As soon as I had finished he arose and invited me to follow him.
Across the hall was a music-room, with high French windows, opening on the porch. He paused at one of these windows now and plucked the flower from a potted heliotrope. The perfume of it seemed to stimulate him strangely. He at once became more animated. A slight trace of color mounted to his waxen cheeks. Turning to me, abruptly, he remarked:
"I mentioned just now my wife. Perhaps you noticed her portrait?"
As he spoke, a faint breath of the heliotrope came to me, and with it, by one of those odd associations of ideas, the portrait by Largilliére. I saw again the gentle face and the lustrous eyes, but the date--1733. Surely, this was not the portrait he referred to.
But he had seen the perplexity in my face, and he broke out in French: "Oui, oui; c'est moi, monsieur de Guise." And then, in English: "It was the portrait of my wife you saw, madame la duchesse par monsieur Largilliere."
"But then, madame, your wife," I stammered, "is dead."
He was still smelling the heliotrope. He looked up at me with his somber eyes for a moment as though he had failed to grasp my meaning. Then he said:
"No, no. There is no such thing as death--only life. For, what is life?--the smile, the perfume, the voice. Ah, the voice! Will you hear her sing?"
For a brief instant my head turned giddily. The world I had always known, the world of tragedies, of sorrows, of physical joys and pains, the world of life and death, in short, was whirling away from beneath my feet.
And I began to recall certain old stories I had heard about the visible servants of the invisible, the earthly agents of the unearthly. Such things have been known to exist.
M. de Guise was walking up and down the room murmuring to himself in French. I could catch an occasional word of endearment. Once I saw him distinctly press the heliotrope to his lips. He had forgotten my presence, apparently. He was in the company of some one whom he alone could see. And then he seated himself at the piano.
I had a presentiment of what was coming. I dropped into a chair and closed my eyes.
Again the heliotrope perfumed the air around me. I saw the smooth brow, the sympathetic eyes, the magic smile of the Duchesse de Guise, and then a voice--that voice I had heard in the swamp--began to sing, so soft, so sweet, that a little spasm twitched at my throat and a chill crept down my back.
It was a love-song, such as they sang centuries ago. I know little French, but it told of love in life and death--"Moi, je t'ai, vive et morte, incessament aimée."
And when I opened my eyes again, all that I saw was the shrivelled black figure of Monsieur de Guise, his silvered head thrown back with the air of one who has seen a vision.
Subconsciously I had heard something else while listening to the song. It was the swift, muffled throb of an approaching motor-boat. M. de Guise had heard it, too, for now he left the piano and approached the window. Presently, I could see a dozen negroes approaching along the avenue of palms. They seemed strangely silent for their race.
"These are my people," said my host. "Once a week I send them to the village. They will carry you away."
The afternoon was far advanced when I bade M. de Guise farewell. As I looked back for the last time the sunset was rapidly dissolving the great white house and its gardens in a golden haze.
His figure on the porch was all that linked it to the world of man.
Late that night I was landed at a corner of Cedar Swamp, adjacent to my home. My black boatman, who had spoken never a word immediately backed his barge away into the darkness, leaving me there alone.
And, although I have since made several efforts to repeat my visit to M. de Guise, I have never been successful. Once, indeed, I found again what I believed to be his island, but it was covered entirely with a dense, forbidding jungle. Which will doubtless discredit this story, as it has caused even me to reflect.
But grant that the story is true, and that M. de Guise was merely mad. Why, then in a certain event, which I need not mention, may God send me madness, too!
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