THE OWNER OF GROSBOIS
My host was as good as his word, for,
when a noise in my room awoke me in the morning, it
was to find him standing by the side of my bed, so
composed in his features and so drab in his attire,
that it was hard to associate him with the stirring
scenes of yesterday and with the repulsive part which
he had played in them. Now in the fresh morning
sunlight he presented rather the appearance of a pedantic
schoolmaster, an impression which was increased by
the masterful, and yet benevolent, smile with which
he regarded me. In spite of his smile, I was
more conscious than ever that my whole soul shrank
from him, and that I should not be at my ease until
I had broken this companionship which had been so
involuntarily formed. He carried a heap of clothes
over one arm, which he threw upon a chair at the bottom
of my bed.
‘I gather from the little that
you told me last night,’ said he, ’that
your wardrobe is at present somewhat scanty.
I fear that your inches are greater than those of
anyone in my household, but I have brought a few things
here amongst which you may find something to fit you.
Here, too, are the razors, the soap, and the powder-box.
I will return in half an hour, when your toilet will
doubtless be completed.’
I found that my own clothes, with
a little brushing, were as good as ever, but I availed
myself of his offer to the extent of a ruffled shirt
and a black satin cravat. I had finished dressing
and was looking out of the window of my room, which
opened on to a blank wall, when my host returned.
He looked me all over with a keenly scrutinising eye,
and appeared to be satisfied with what he saw.
‘That will do! That will
do very well indeed!’ said he, nodding a critical
head. ’In these times a slight indication
of travel or hard work upon a costume is more fashionable
than the foppishness of the Incroyable.
I have heard ladies remark that it was in better taste.
Now, sir, if you will kindly follow me.’
His solicitude about my dress filled
me with surprise, but this was soon forgotten in the
shock which was awaiting me. For as we passed
down the passage and into a large hall which seemed
strangely familiar to me, there was a full-length
portrait of my father standing right in front of me.
I stood staring with a gasp of astonishment, and turned
to see the cold grey eyes of my companion fixed upon
me with a humorous glitter.
‘You seem surprised, Monsieur de Laval,’
‘For God’s sake,’
said I, ’do not trifle with me any further!
Who are you, and what is this place to which you
have taken me?’
For answer he broke into one of his
dry chuckles, and, laying his skinny brown hand upon
my wrist, he led me into a large apartment. In
the centre was a table, tastefully laid, and beyond
it in a low chair a young lady was seated, with a
book in her hand. She rose as we entered, and
I saw that she was tall and slender, with a dark face,
pronounced features, and black eyes of extraordinary
brilliancy. Even in that one glance it struck
me that the expression with which she regarded me was
by no means a friendly one.
‘Sibylle,’ said my host,
and his words took the breath from my lips, ’this
is your cousin from England, Louis de Laval.
This, my dear nephew, is my only daughter, Sibylle
‘Then you ’
‘I am your mother’s brother, Charles Bernac.’
‘You are my Uncle Bernac!’
I stammered at him like an idiot. ’But
why did you not tell me so?’ I cried.
’I was not sorry to have a chance
of quietly observing what his English education had
done for my nephew. It might also have been harder
for me to stand your friend if my comrades had any
reason to think that I was personally interested in
you. But you will permit me now to welcome you
heartily to France, and to express my regret if your
reception has been a rough one. I am sure that
Sibylle will help me to atone for it.’
He smiled archly at his daughter, who continued to
regard me with a stony face.
I looked round me, and gradually the
spacious room, with the weapons upon the wall, and
the deer’s heads, came dimly back to my memory.
That view through the oriel window, too, with the clump
of oaks in the sloping park, and the sea in the distance
beyond, I had certainly seen it before. It was
true then, and I was in our own castle of Grosbois,
and this dreadful man in the snuff-coloured coat, this
sinister plotter with the death’s-head face,
was the man whom I had heard my poor father curse
so often, the man who had ousted him from his own property
and installed himself in his place. And yet
I could not forget that it was he also who, at some
risk to himself, had saved me the night before, and
my soul was again torn between my gratitude and my
We had seated ourselves at the table,
and as we ate, this newly-found uncle of mine continued
to explain all those points which I had failed to
‘I suspected that it was you
the instant that I set eyes upon you,’ said
he. ’I am old enough to remember your father
when he was a young gallant, and you are his very
double though I may say, without flattery,
that where there is a difference it is in your favour.
And yet he had the name of being one of the handsomest
men betwixt Rouen and the sea. You must bear
in mind that I was expecting you, and that there are
not so many young aristocrats of your age wandering
about along the coast. I was surprised when
you did not recognise where you were last night.
Had you never heard of the secret passage of Grosbois?’
It came vaguely back to me that in
my childhood I had heard of this underground tunnel,
but that the roof had fallen in and rendered it useless.
‘Precisely,’ said my uncle.
’When the castle passed into my hands, one
of the very first things which I did was to cut a new
opening at the end of it, for I foresaw that in these
troublesome times it might be of use to me; indeed,
had it been in repair it might have made the escape
of your mother and father a very much easier affair.’
His words recalled all that I had
heard and all that I could remember of those dreadful
days when we, the Lords of the country side, had been
chased across it as if we had been wolves, with the
howling mob still clustering at the pier-head to shake
their fists and hurl their stones at us. I remembered,
too, that it was this very man who was speaking to
me who had thrown oil upon the flames in those days,
and whose fortunes had been founded upon our ruin.
As I looked across at him I found that his keen grey
eyes were fixed upon me, and I could see that he had
read the thoughts in my mind.
‘We must let bygones be bygones,’
said he. ’Those are quarrels of the last
generation, and Sibylle and you represent a new one.’
My cousin had not said one word or
taken any notice of my presence, but at this joining
of our names she glanced at me with the same hostile
expression which I had already remarked.
‘Come, Sibylle,’ said
her father, ’you can assure your cousin Louis
that, so far as you are concerned, any family misunderstanding
is at an end.’
‘It is very well for us to talk
in that way, father,’ she answered. ’It
is not your picture that hangs in the hall, or your
coat-of-arms that I see upon the wall. We hold
the castle and the land, but it is for the heir of
the de Lavals to tell us if he is satisfied
with this.’ Her dark scornful eyes were
fixed upon me as she waited for my reply, but her
father hastened to intervene.
‘This is not a very hospitable
tone in which to greet your cousin,’ said he
harshly. ‘It has so chanced that Louis’
heritage has fallen to us, but it is not for us to
remind him of the fact.’
‘He needs no reminding,’ said she.
‘You do me an injustice,’
I cried, for the evident and malignant scorn of this
girl galled me to the quick. ’It is true
that I cannot forget that this castle and these grounds
belonged to my ancestors I should be a
clod indeed if I could forget it but
if you think that I harbour any bitterness, you are
mistaken. For my own part, I ask nothing better
than to open up a career for myself with my own sword.’
’And never was there a time
when it could be more easily and more brilliantly
done,’ cried my uncle. ’There are
great things about to happen in the world, and if
you are at the Emperor’s court you will be in
the middle of them. I understand that you are
content to serve him?’
‘I wish to serve my country.’
’By serving the Emperor you
do so, for without him the country becomes chaos.’
‘From all we hear it is not
a very easy service,’ said my cousin. ’I
should have thought that you would have been very much
more comfortable in England and then you
would have been so much safer also.’
Everything which the girl said seemed
to be meant as an insult to me, and yet I could not
imagine how I had ever offended her. Never had
I met a woman for whom I conceived so hearty and rapid
a dislike. I could see that her remarks were
as offensive to her father as they were to me, for
he looked at her with eyes which were as angry as her
’Your cousin is a brave man,
and that is more than can be said for someone else
that I could mention,’ said he.
‘For whom?’ she asked.
‘Never mind!’ he snapped,
and, jumping up with the air of a man who is afraid
that his rage may master him, and that he may say more
than he wished, he ran from the room.
She seemed startled by this retort
of his, and rose as if she would follow him.
Then she tossed her head and laughed incredulously.
‘I suppose that you have never
met your uncle before?’ said she, after a few
minutes of embarrassed silence.
‘Never,’ answered I.
‘Well, what do you think of him now you have
Such a question from a daughter about
her father filled me with a certain vague horror.
I felt that he must be even a worse man than I had
taken him for if he had so completely forfeited the
loyalty of his own nearest and dearest.
‘Your silence is a sufficient
answer,’ said she, as I hesitated for a reply.
’I do not know how you came to meet him last
night, or what passed between you, for we do not share
each other’s confidences. I think, however,
that you have read him aright. Now I have something
to ask you. You had a letter from him inviting
you to leave England and to come here, had you not?’
‘Yes, I had.’
‘Did you observe nothing on the outside?’
I thought of those two sinister words which had puzzled
me so much.
‘What! it was you who warned me not to come?’
‘Yes, it was I. I had no other means of doing
‘But why did you do it?’
‘Because I did not wish you to come here.’
‘Did you think that I would harm you?’
She sat silent for a few seconds like
one who is afraid of saying too much. When her
answer came it was a very unexpected one:
‘I was afraid that you would be harmed.’
‘You think that I am in danger here?’
‘I am sure of it.’
‘You advise me to leave?’
‘Without losing an instant.’
‘From whom is the danger then?’
Again she hesitated, and then, with
a reckless motion like one who throws prudence to
the winds, she turned upon me.
‘It is from my father,’ said she.
‘But why should he harm me?’
‘That is for your sagacity to discover.’
‘But I assure you, mademoiselle,
that in this matter you misjudge him,’ said
I. ‘As it happens, he interfered to save
my life last night.’
‘To save your life! From whom?’
‘From two conspirators whose plans I had chanced
‘Conspirators!’ She looked at me in surprise.
‘They would have killed me if he had not intervened.’
’It is not his interest that
you should be harmed yet awhile. He had reasons
for wishing you to come to Castle Grosbois. But
I have been very frank with you, and I wish you to
be equally so with me. Does it happen does
it happen that during your youth in England you have
ever you have ever had an affair of the
Everything which this cousin of mine
said appeared to me to be stranger than the last,
and this question, coming at the end of so serious
a conversation, was the strangest of all. But
frankness begets frankness, and I did not hesitate.
’I have left the very best and
truest girl in the world behind me in England,’
said I. ’Eugenie is her name, Eugenie de
Choiseul, the niece of the old Duke.’
My reply seemed to give my cousin
great satisfaction. Her large dark eyes shone
‘You are very attached?’ she asked.
‘I shall never be happy until I see her.’
‘And you would not give her up?’
‘Not for the Castle of Grosbois?’
‘Not even for that.’
My cousin held out her hand to me with a charmingly
‘You will forgive me for my
rudeness,’ said she. ’I see that
we are to be allies and not enemies.’
And our hands were still clasped when her father re-entered