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Title: La Femme Noir
Author: Ann Maria Hall
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605641.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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La Femme Noir
Ann Maria Hall


People find it easy enough to laugh at "spirit-stories" in broad
daylight, when the sunbeams dance upon the grass, and the deepest
forest glades are spotted and checkered only by the tender shadows of
leafy trees; when the rugged castle, that looked so mysterious and so
stern in the looming night, seems suited for a lady's bower; when the
rushing waterfall sparkles in diamond showers, and the hum of bee and
song of bird tune the thoughts to hopes of life and happiness; people
may laugh at ghosts then, if they like, but as for me, I never could
merely smile at the records of those shadowy visitors. I have large
faith in things supernatural, and cannot disbelieve solely on the
ground that I lack such evidences as are supplied by the senses; for
they, in truth, sustain by palpable proofs so few of the many marvels
by which we are surrounded, that I would rather reject them altogether
as witnesses, than abide the issue entirely as they suggest.

My great grandmother was a native of the canton of Berne; and at the
advanced age of ninety, her memory of "the long ago" was as active as
it could have been at fifteen; she looked as if she had just stepped
out of a piece of tapestry belonging to a past age, but with warm
sympathies for the present. Her English, when she became excited, was
very curious--a mingling of French, certainly not Parisian, with here
and there scraps of German done into English, literally--so that her
observations were at times remarkable for their strength. "The
mountains," she would say, "in her country, went high, high up, until
they could look into the heavens, and hear God in the storm." She
never thoroughly comprehended the real beauty of England; but spoke
with contempt of the flatness of our island--calling our mountains
"inequalities," nothing more---holding our agriculture "cheap," saying
that the land tilled itself, leaving man nothing to do. She would sing
the most amusing patois songs, and tell stories from morning till
night, more especially spirit-stories; but the old lady would not tell
a tale of that character a second time to an unbeliever; such things,
she would say, "are not for make-laugh." One in particular, I
remember, always excited great interest in her young listeners, from
its mingling of the real and the romantic; but it can never be told as
she told it; there was so much of the picturesque about the old lady--
so much to admire in the curious carving of her ebony cane, in the
beauty of her point lace, the size and weight of her long ugly
earrings, the fashion of her solid silk gown, the singularity of her
buckled shoes--her dark-brown wrinkled face, every wrinkle an
expression---her broad thoughtful brow, beneath which glittered her
bright blue eyes--bright, even when her eyelashes were white with
years. All these peculiarities gave impressive effect to her words.

"In my young time," she told us, "I spent many happy hours with Amelie
de Rohean, in her uncle's castle. He was a fine man--much size, stern,
and dark, and full of noise--a strong man, no fear--he had a great
heart, and a big head.

"The castle was situated in the midst of the most stupendous Alpine
scenery, and yet it was not solitary. There were other dwellings in
sight; some very near, but separated by a ravine, through which, at
all seasons, a rapid river kept its foaming course. You do not know
what torrents are in this country; your torrents are as babies--ours
are giants. The one I speak of divided the valley; here and there a
rock, round which it sported, or stormed, according to the season. In
two of the defiles these rocks were of great value; acting as piers
for the support of bridges, the only means of communication with our
opposite neighbors.

"Monsieur, as we always called the count, was, as I have told you, a
dark, stern, violent man. All men are wilful, my dear young ladies,"
she would say; "but Monsieur was the most wilful: all men are selfish,
but he was the most selfish: all men are tyrants--" Here the old lady
was invariably interrupted by her relatives, with "Oh, good Granny!"
and, "Oh fie, dear Granny!" and she would bridle up a little and fan
herself; then continue--"Yes, my dears, each creature according to its
nature--all men are tyrants; and I confess that I do think a Swiss,
whose mountain inheritance is nearly coeval with the creation of the
mountains, has a right to be tyrannical; I did not intend to blame him
for that: I did not, because I had grown used to it. Amelie and I
always stood up and when he entered the room, and never sat down until
we were desired. He never bestowed a loving word or a kind look upon
either of us. We never spoke except when we were spoken to."

"But when you and Amelie were alone, dear Granny?"

"Oh, why, then we did chatter, I suppose; though then it was in
moderation; for monsieur's influence chilled us even when he was not
present; and often she would say, 'It is hard trying to love him, for
he will not let me!' There is no such beauty in the world now as
Amelie's. I can see her as she used to stand before the richly carved
glass in the grave oak-panelled dressing-room; her luxuriant hair
combed up from her full round brow; the discreet maidenly cap,
covering the back of her head; her brocaded silk, (which she had
inherited from her grandmother,) shaded round the bosom by the modest
ruffle; her black velvet gorget and bracelets, showing off to
perfection the pearly transparency of her skin. She was the loveliest
of all creatures, and as good as she was lovely; it seems but as
yesterday that we were together--but as yesterday! And yet I lived to
see her an old woman; so they called her, but she never seemed old to
me! My own dear Amelie!" Ninety years had not dried up the sources of
poor Granny's tears, nor chilled her heart; and she never spoke of
Amelie without emotion. "Monsieur was very proud of his niece, because
she was part of himself; she added to his consequence, she contributed
to his enjoyments; she had grown necessary; she was the one sunbeam of
his house."

"Not the one sunbeam, surely, Granny!" one of us would exclaim; "you
were a sunbeam then."

"I was nothing where Amelie was--nothing but her shadow! The bravest
and best in the country would have rejoiced to be to her what I was--
her chosen friend; and some would have perilled their lives for one of
the sweet smiles which played around her uncle, but never touched his
heart. Monsieur never would suffer people to be happy except in his
way. He had never married; and he declared Amelie never should. She
had, he said, as much enjoyment as he had: she had a castle with a
draw-bridge; she had a forest for hunting; dogs and horses; servants
and serfs; jewels, gold, and gorgeous dresses; a guitar and a
harpsichord; a parrot--and a friend! And such an uncle! he believed
there was not such another uncle in broad Europe! For many a long day
Amelie laughed at this catalogue of advantages--that is, she laughed
when her uncle left the room; she never laughed before him. In time,
the laugh came not; but in its place, sighs and tears."

"Monsieur had a great deal to answer for. Amelie was not prevented
from seeing the gentry when they came to visit in a formal way, and
she met many hawking and hunting; but she never was permitted to
invite any one to the castle, nor to accept an invitation. Monsieur
fancied that by shutting her lips, he closed her heart; and boasted
such was the advantage of his good training, that Amelie's mind was
fortified against all weaknesses, for she had not the least dread of
wandering about the ruined chapel of the castle, where he himself
dared not go after dusk. This place was dedicated to the family
ghost--the spirit, which for many years had it entirely at its own
disposal. It was much attached to its quarters, seldom leaving them,
except for the purpose of interfering when anything decidedly wrong
was going forward in the castle. 'La Femme Noir' had been seen gliding
along the unprotected parapet of the bridge, and standing on a
pinnacle, before the late master's death; and many tales were told of
her, which in this age of unbelief would not be credited."

"Granny, did you know why your friend ventured so fearlessly into the
ghost's territories?" inquired my cousin.

"I am not come to that," was the reply; "and you are one saucy little
maid to ask what I do not choose to tell. Amelie certainly entertained
no fear of the spirit; 'La Femme Noir' could have had no angry
feelings towards her, for my friend would wander in the ruins, taking
no note of daylight, or moonlight, or even darkness. The peasants
declared their young lady must have walked over crossed bones, or
drank water out of a raven's skull, or passed nine times round the
spectre's glass on Midsummer eve. She must have done all this, if not
more; there could be little doubt that the 'Femme Noir' had initiated
her into certain mysteries; for they heard at times voices in low,
whispering converse, and saw the shadows of two persons cross the old
roofless chapel, when 'Mamselle' had passed the foot-bridge alone.
Monsieur gloried in this fearlessness on the part of his gentle niece;
and more than once, when he had revellers in the castle, he sent her
forth at midnight to bring him a bough from a tree that only grew
beside the altar of the old chapel; and she did his bidding always as
willingly, though not as rapidly, as he could desire.

"But certainly Amelie's courage brought no calmness. She became pale;
her pillow was often moistened by her tears; her music was neglected;
she took no pleasure in the chase; and her chamois not receiving its
usual attention, went off into the mountains. She avoided me--her
friend! who would have died for her; she made no reply to my prayers,
and did not heed my entreaties. One morning, when her eyes were fixed
upon a book she did not read, and I sat at my embroidery a little
apart, watching the tears stray over her cheek until I was blinded by
my own, I heard monsieur's heavy tramp approaching through the long
gallery; some boots creak--but the boots of monsieur!--they growled!"

'Save me, oh save me!' she exclaimed wildly. Before I could reply, her
uncle crashed open the door, and stood before us like an embodied
thunderbolt. He held an open letter in his hand--his eyes glared--his
nostrils were distended--he trembled so with rage, that the cabinets
and old china shook again.

"'Do you,' he said, 'know Charles le Maitre?'

"Amelie replied, 'She did.'

"'How did you make acquaintance with the son of my deadliest foe?'

"There was no answer. The question was repeated. Amelie said she had
met him, and at last confessed it was in the ruined portion of the
castle! She threw herself at her uncle's feet--she clung to his knees;
love taught her eloquence. She told him how deeply Charles regretted
the long-standing feud; how earnest, and true, and good, he was.
Bending low, until her tresses were heaped upon the floor, she
confessed, modestly, but firmly, that she loved this young man; that
she would rather sacrifice the wealth of the whole world, than forget
him.

"Monsieur seemed suffocating; he tore off his lace cravat, and
scattered its fragments on the floor--still she clung to him. At last
he flung her from him; he reproached her with the bread she had eaten,
and heaped odium upon her mother's memory! But though Amelie's nature
was tender and affectionate, the old spirit of the old race roused
within her; the slight girl arose, and stood erect before the man of
storms.

"'Did you think,' she said, 'because I bent to you that I am feeble?
because I bore with you, have I no thoughts? You gave food to this
frame, but you fed not my heart; you gave me not love, nor tenderness,
nor sympathy; you showed me to your friends, as you would your horse.
If you had by kindness sown the seeds of love within my bosom; if you
had been a father to me in tenderness, I would have been to you--a
child. I never knew the time when I did not tremble at your footstep;
but I will do so no more. I would gladly have loved you, trusted you,
cherished you; but I feared to let you know I had a heart, lest you
should tear and insult it. Oh, sir, those who expect love where they
give none, and confidence where there is no trust, blast the fair time
of youth, and lay up for themselves an unhonored old age.' The scene
terminated by monsieur's falling down in a fit, and Amelie's being
conveyed fainting to her chamber.

"That night the castle was enveloped by storms; they came from all
points of the compass---thunder, lightning, hail, and rain! The master
lay in his stately bed and was troubled; he could hardly believe that
Amelie spoke the words he had heard: cold-hearted and selfish as he
was, he was also a clear-seeing man, and it was their truth that
struck him. But still his heart was hardened; he had commanded Amelie
to be locked into her chamber, and her lover seized and imprisoned
when he came to his usual tryste. Monsieur, I have said, lay in his
stately bed, the lightning, at intervals, illumining his dark chamber.
I had cast myself on the floor outside her door, but could not hear
her weep, though I I knew that she was overcome of sorrow. As I sat,
my head resting against the lintel of the door, a form passed through
the solid oak from her chamber, without the bolts being withdrawn. I
saw it as plainly as I see your faces now, under the influence of
various emotions; nothing opened, but it passed through--a shadowy
form, dark and vapory, but perfectly distinct. I knew it was 'La Femme
Noir,' and I trembled, for she never came from caprice, but always for
a purpose. I did not fear for Amelie, for 'La Femme Noir' never warred
with the high-minded or virtuous. She passed slowly, more slowly than
I am speaking, along the corridor, growing taller and taller as she
went on, until she entered monsieur's chamber by the door exactly
opposite where I stood. She paused at the foot of the plumed bed, and
the lightning, no longer fitful, by its broad flashes kept up a
continual illumination. She stood for some time perfectly motionless,
though in a loud tone the master demanded whence she came, and what
she wanted. At last, during a pause in the storm, she told him that
all the power he possessed should not prevent the union of Amelie and
Charles. I heard her voice myself; it sounded like the night-wind
among fir-trees--cold and shrill, chilling both ear and heart. I
turned my eyes away while she spoke, and when I looked again, she was
gone!"

The storm continued to increase in violence, and the master's rage
kept pace with the war of elements. The servants were trembling with
undefined terror; they feared they knew not what; the dogs added to
their apprehension by howling fearfully, and then barking in the
highest possible key; the master paced about his chamber, calling in
vain on his domestics, stamping and swearing like a maniac. At last,
amid flashes of lightning, he made his way to the head of the great
staircase, and presently the clang of the alarm-bell mingled with the
thunder and the roar of the mountain torrents: this hastened the
servants to his presence, though they seemed hardly capable of
understanding his words--he insisted on Charles being brought before
him. We all trembled, for he was mad and livid with rage. The warden,
in whose care the young man was, dared not enter the hall that echoed
his loud words and heavy footsteps, for when he went to seek his
prisoner, he found every bolt and bar withdrawn, and the iron door
wide open: he was gone.

Monsieur seemed to find relief by his energies being called into
action; he ordered instant pursuit, and mounted his favorite charger,
despite the storm, despite the fury of the elements.

Although the great gates rocked, and the castle shook like an aspen-
leaf, he set forth, his path illumined by the lightning; bold and
brave as was his horse, he found it almost impossible to get it
forward; he dug his spurs deep into the flanks of the noble animal,
until the red blood mingled with the rain. At last, it rushed madly
down the path to the bridge the young man must cross; and when they
reached it, the master discerned the floating cloak of the pursued, a
few yards in advance. Again the horse rebelled against his will, the
lightning flashed in his eyes, and the torrent seemed a mass of red
fire; no sound could be heard but of its roaring waters; the
attendants clung as they advanced to the hand rail of the bridge. The
youth, unconscious of the pursuit, proceeded rapidly; and again
roused, the horse plunged forward. On the instant, the form of 'La
Femme Noir' passed with the blast that rushed down the ravine; the
torrent followed in her track, and more than half the bridge was swept
away forever. As the master reined back the horse he had so urged
forward, he saw the youth kneeling with outstretched arms on the
opposite bank--kneeling in gratitude for his deliverance from his
double peril. All were struck with the piety of the youth, and
earnestly rejoiced at his deliverance; though they did not presume to
say so, or look as if they thought it. I never saw so changed a person
as the master when he reentered the castle gate: his cheek was
blanched--his eye quelled--his fierce plume hung broken over his
shoulder--his step was unequal, and in the voice of a feeble girl he
said--'Bring me a cup of wine.' I was his cupbearer, and for the first
time in his life he thanked me graciously, and in the warmth of his
gratitude tapped my shoulder; the caress nearly hurled me across the
hall. What passed in his retiring-room, I know not. Some said the
'Femme Noir' visited him again; I cannot tell; I did not see her; I
speak of what I saw, not of what I heard. The storm passed away with a
clap of thunder, to which the former sounds were but as the rattling
of pebbles beneath the swell of a summer wave. The next morning
monsieur sent for the pasteur. The good man seemed terror-stricken as
he entered the hall; but monsieur filled him a quart of gold coins out
of a leathern bag, to repair his church, and that quickly; and
grasping his hand as he departed, looked him steadily in the face. As
he did so, large drops stood like beads upon his brow; his stern,
coarse features were strangely moved while he gazed upon the calm,
pale minister of peace and love. 'You,' he said, 'bid God bless the
poorest peasant that passes I you on the mountain; have you no
blessing to give the master of Rohean?'

"'My son,' answered the good man, 'I give you the blessing I may
give:--May God bless you, and may your heart be opened to give and to
receive.'

"'I know I can give,' replied the proud man; 'but what can I receive?'

"'Love,' he replied. 'All your wealth has not brought you happiness,
because you are unloving and unloved!'

"The demon returned to his brow, but it did not remain there.

"'You shall give me lessons in this thing,' he said; and so the good
man went his way.

"Amelie continued a close prisoner; but a change came over monsieur.
At first he shut himself up in his chamber, and no one was suffered to
enter his presence; he took his food with his own hand from the only
attendant who ventured to approach his door. He was heard walking up
and down the room, day and night. When we were going to sleep, we
heard his heavy tramp; at daybreak, there it was again; and those of
the household, who awoke at intervals during the night, said it was
unceasing.

"Monsieur could read. Ah, you may smile; but in those days, and in
those mountains, such men as the master did not trouble themselves or
others with knowledge; but the master of Rohean read both Latin and
Greek, and commanded THE BOOK he had never opened since his child-hood
to be brought him. It was taken out of its velvet case, and carried in
forthwith; and we saw his shadow from without, like the shadow of a
giant, bending over THE BOOK; and he read in it for some days; and we
greatly hoped it would soften and change his nature--and though I
cannot say much for the softening, it certainly affected a great
change; he no longer stalked moodily along the corridors, and banged
the doors, and swore at the servants; he the rather seemed possessed
of a merry devil, roaring out an old song--"

Aux bastions de Genève, nos cannons

Sont branquez;

S'il y a quelque attaque nous les feront ronfler.

Viva! les cannoniers!

"and then he would pause, and clang his hands together like a pair of
cymbals, and laugh. And once, as I was passing along, he pounced out
upon me, and whirled me round in a waltz, roaring at me when he let me
down, to practise that and break my embroidery frame. He formed a band
of horns and trumpets, and insisted on the goatherds and shepherds
sounding reveilles in the mountains, and the village children beating
drums; his only idea of joy and happiness was noise."

He set all the canton to work to mend the bridge, paying the workmen
double wages; and he, who never entered a church before, would go to
see how the laborers were getting on nearly every day. He talked and
laughed a great deal to himself and in his gayety of heart would set
the mastiffs fighting, and make excursions from home--we knowing not
where he went. At last, Amelie was summoned to his presence, and he
shook her and shouted, then kissed her; and hoping she would be a good
girl, told her he had provided a husband for her. Amelie wept and
prayed; and the master capered and sung. At last she fainted; and
taking advantage of her unconsciousness, he conveyed her to the
chapel; and there beside the altar stood the bridegroom--no other than
Charles Le Maitre.

"They lived many happy years together; and when monsieur was in every
respect a better, though still a strange man, 'the Femme Noir'
appeared again to him--once. She did so with a placid air, on a summer
night, with her arm extended towards the heavens.

"The next day the muffled bell told the valley that the stormy, proud
old master of Rohean had ceased to live."



THE END



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