Coals of Fire: 1860s

woman-at-fireplace

COALS OF FIRE.

BY LUCY H. HOOPER.

The Countess de Castro was dying. People— that is to say, her relatives and immediate heirs— were so hard-hearted as to say it was time; for the Countess had passed her seventy-fifth birthday by some months, and had been a hopeless paralytic for over ten years past.

She was dying in the odor of sanctity. Her enemies, and even the Countess de Castro had a few, said that people who can stir neither hand nor foot, can very well earn a reputation, even for exemplary piety. Others said, more charitably, that there was no cause for anybody to grieve over her approaching demise, for that it was rare that any one was so well prepared to take her departure. They talked of the money she had given in charity, of her holy conversation, of her resignation, of her Christian example.

The Countess inhabited an antique hotel in Paris. It was her own by right of inheritance, for she had been, in her youth, a great heiress— Madamoiselle de St. Yvon, of Keriodec, in Brittany. She had been celebrated for her intellect and strength of character, and in her youth she had refused to marry, with a persistency rare in a French damsel of rank. It was reported that Louis XVIII. had sued to her in person, on behalf of one of the greatest of the Legitimist nobles of France, but in vain. She was over fifty years of age, when Parisian society was startled by the announcement of her marriage with the young Count de Castro, who numbered scarce half her own age, and who was notorious for his extravagance and his profligacy. But he was handsome as a picture, and possessed a winning tongue and a graceful address. And so the ill-matched pair were wedded, and took up their residence in the grand old hotel, in the Faubourg St. Germain. There the Countess gave stately balls, whereat all the gentlemen wore white lilies in their button-holes, and the ladies looped their tresses and their draperies with the same flower, and where a giddy young marquise was pitilessly snubbed by the hostess, because she came to the festival in question, wearing a dress trimmed with bouquets of the obnoxious Bonaparte violets. There were state dinner-parties given, also, whereat the guests were all old and dried up, and the ladies wore garments of antique fashion, scorning the mode that followed the lead of a parvenu Empress. But these formal festivities soon ceased, and it was whispered abroad that the Count de Castro was rapidly winning high favor at the Court of Napoleon III.

Of course, such a rumor meant that he had quarreled with his elderly wife; and that portion, at least, of the report, was true. They led but a cat-and-dog’s life of it, in that grand old hotel beyond the Seine. The Count was fast and frivolous, the Countess jealous and severe. He wanted money beyond the income secured to him by the terms of the marriage contract, and she refused to comply with his demands. Stories got abroad of fearful scenes between the pair. Their daily lives had long been as widely parted as possible, Madame going continually to church, while Monsieur frequented balls, and operas, and theatres. This kind of thing went on for some years. At last matters reached a crisis. The Count lost heavily at cards, at the Jockey Club, one evening, and confided to a friend that other claims were weighing upon him. There was a house at Burgival for which he owed, and the furniture, also, had never been paid for. And so the fashionable world was not much surprised when the Count de Castro disappeared, one fine morning, leaving all his debts, whether of honor or dishonor, unpaid behind him.

Madame de Castro behaved remarkably well at this conjuncture, as everybody remarked. She paid the Count’s debts, to the uttermost farthing, and was seen in her usual places of resort a trifle paler, sterner, and stiffer-looking than before, but otherwise wearing an unchanged and placid aspect. One only circumstance revealed how deeply she mourned for her vanished spouse. She caused the suite of apartments wherein she had dwelt with the Count to be closed up, and transferred her abode to the other wing of the hotel. But the servants averred, that after nightfall their mistress would occasionally enter the locked-up rooms, and remain there for a space, as if to mourn for her husband’s absence in solitude and secrecy. Few who knew the grave, stern Countess, would have fancied her capable of any such romantic action; but the story got noised abroad, nevertheless, and spread a sentimental halo about the deserted wife, prosaic and severe as her age and aspect might be.

The Count never returned. Occasionally, vague rumors were current of his appearance in far-distant lands. One story declared that he had gone to America with a certain celebrated dancer, and that he had been seen driving out with her, on the Shell Road, New Orleans. Another report averred that he was holding a high official position under the Governor of Java. Some said he had gone to Algiers; others, that he was in the employ of the French Legation at Hong-Kong. Some of these stories were traced to their source, and were found to be utterly groundless; others remained unquestioned and uncontradicted, till time proved their falsity. At all events, the Count never returned to Paris.

As the years went on, the Countess dwelt more and more in solitude. She did not put on mourning, neither did she assume any of the privileges of a widow. But she never spoke of her husband, nor would she permit his name to be mentioned in her presence. It was ten years after his mysterious disappearance, that she was first stricken with paralysis. She then insisted upon again changing her quarters, and took up her abode anew in the rooms wherein the troubled years of her married life had been spent. At first she used to be drawn in a wheeled chair around the garden, or through the long corridors of the hotel; but years had passed since she had relinquished even that form of locomotion, and had refused to quit the room wherein she now lay.

It was a vast and cheerless apartment; the wood-work, black with age, even to the waxed and polished floor, whose boards, warped and loosened by time, creaked noisily beneath the unwary tread. Some antique tapestry, saved from the sack of the Chateau de Keriodec by the Republican troops, during the first Revolution, clothed the walls, its tints of dull and faded green and sickly yellow adding an unnecessary touch of gloom to the aspect of the room. The ceiling overhead, with massive cross-beams, was of the same dark wood as the wainscoting and the floor. The chairs were mostly huge, carved arm-chairs, with cushions of faded needle-work, the only exception being a patent invalid-chair, lately used by the Countess, which stretched itself out in one dusky corner like some shapeless and huge antediluvian lizard. The fireplace, vast and cavernous, with a chimney-piece that towered to the ceiling, was filled with blazing logs; for the month was November, and the weather was chill, even for the season. At the extreme end of the room stood the bed, a large, old-fashioned structure, with curtains that matched the hangings on the walls. These were drawn aside, and the figure of the Countess could plainly be seen there, stretched out, stark and straight, as though life had already departed, and looking, with her white draperies and bandaged brows, like some monumental effigy on an ancient tomb. She still lived, however, if the faint pulsation at heart and wrist, and the feeble flutter of breath upon her lips, could really be called life. And but for one point about her pallid, wrinkled face, one might readily have supposed that she had passed already beyond the reach of mortal aid. That point was her eyes. Wide open, keen, and glittering, they were turned with a fixed and steady gaze, not forward or upward, but toward the vast dim-lighted room, seeming to seek a particular point in the flooring, and to watch that with unwavering fixity.

Around the wide fire-place were clustered a number of individuals, who talked together in subdued whispers, and only stirred with due precaution and noiseless movements. These were the blood-relations and heirs of the aged Countess, summoned, by her direction, some days before, and now gathered together in the chamber of death, awaiting the event which the doctor, himself also present, declared to them might take place at any moment.

Prominent among these persons was the Count de St. Yvon, an elderly gentleman, with gray hair and most polished manners. Then there was the Demoiselle de Savarre, a hard-featured old maid, with the bluest blood in all Brittany flowing in her withered veins; a devout Legitimist, who passed her time between saying her prayers and embroidering fleurs de-lit upon banners and mantles, to be used at the future consecration of Henri Cinq, when the glad day of the restoration of the ancient monarchy should dawn for France. Then there was the Chevalier de Keriodec, a little older and more wrinkled than his cousin, the Count; and his daughter, a peachy-cheeked demoiselle, Anne Marie Antoinette de Keriodec by name, to whom the eldest son of Count de St. Yvon was whispering soft nonsense in the embrasure of one of the windows. These were all, the Countess having announced her intention of excluding from the succession such of her relatives as should be tinged either with Bonapartism or Republicanism; and as one or the other of these poisonous principles had crept even into Brittany, that sacred stronghold of Legitimism, she had been forced to restrict her bequests to a very few individuals. There was also present, as we have said before, her physician, Doctor Dumaresq, and her confidential maid. This last, a long, thin, stern-looking female, with a face like a German nut-cracker, was fast asleep in the large arm-chair, worn out with protracted vigils and constant toil in her lady’s service.

The silence in the room was very great, broken only by the subdued whispers of the waiting heirs, and by an occasional snore from Agathe, the maid. Outside, the wind went tearing down the Rue de Varennes, banging aristocratic shutters, and whistling around ducal chimney-pots, with no more reverence than it had shown to the shop-signs in the Marais, or the vanes on the Halles Centrales. Occasionally Doctor Dumaresq would rise and go to the bed to lay a finger on the pulse of the patient, and would then, with a sigh and a shake of the head, return to his seat. And so the night went on. The wind howled, and Agathe slept, and the heirs whispered together, and the Countess lay and watched the floor. Thus the hours wore away without change or incident.

Suddenly the blast, that had been sweeping and shrieking along the street, took a sudden turn, and came careering down the great, wide chimney, sending a volley of sparks and smoke into the room. It could do but little more than that. The heavy logs, of which the fire was built, scoffed at the puny efforts of a puff of wind. One glowing coal, however, was dislodged, and flew into the room, alighting on the very plank on which the eyes of the Countess were so pertinaciously fixed. Nobody noticed the coal. The Count was lost in thought; the Chevalier and Mademoiselle de Savarre were conferring together respecting the possible amount of the estate, in an undertone; the two young people were absorbed in each other; and the doctor was half asleep. And so it glowed, and scorched, and sparkled, gnawing its way into the dry oak of the ancient flooring, surrounded by an ever-widening ring of red and charring fire.

Suddenly the dying Countess, she who had been paralyzed for years, arose from her bed, walked straight to the fire-place, picked up the tongs, took up the coal, and threw it back into the fire, and then returned to her bed. Stiff and stark, and stretched out straight as before, she lay, only the wide-open eyes were closed, and her face was, if possible, a shade paler than before.

This strange incident, this sudden revival of vitality in that seemingly lifeless frame, and the apparition in the midst of that listless group, of the white-shrouded, spectral form of the Countess, startled every one present. The heirs ceased musing or whispering, and gathered together, amazed and startled. The doctor, aroused from his doze, sprang to his feet. Only Agathe slept on in peaceful unconsciousness.

Doctor Dumaresq approached the bed, and once more laid his finger on the patient’s wrist. Then he touched her breast gently, and bent his ear to her parted lips. After a brief pause, he turned to the bystanders.

“Pray for the soul of your noble relative,” he said, solemnly. “The Countess is no more!”

The funeral took place two days later. It was a grand affair, with much display of nodding plumes and silver-spotted draperies, of mourning carriages, and of mighty candles, and of all the other accessories of funereal pomp, as imagined by the great Burial Company of Paris. It was a first-class affair in every respect. The cords of the hearse were held by two dukes, a marquis, and three counts, all of the bluest blood in the Faubourg St Germain. The funeral sermon was preached by a bishop, who was himself of princely extraction. Nobody shed any tears, it is true. The only sincere mourner that followed the widowed and childless Countess to her grave, was probably her faithful old servant, Agathe. And she, serene in the knowledge of a snug little annuity, secured to her by the will of her late mistress, was far from feeling wholly broken-hearted.

On the evening of the following day, a mysterious meeting was held in the bed-room of the departed lady. The heavy tapestry curtains were closely drawn across the windows, so that no intrusive outside gaze could penetrate the chamber wherein sat the three principal heirs of the deceased, the Count, the Chevalier, and Mademoiselle de Savarre, in solemn conclave. Three flickering candles threw a pallid light upon the group, and vainly strove to dissipate the darkness that filled the farthest corners of the spacious room.

The Count was the first to break silence.

“We have decided, I believe,” he said, “that it is our duty to examine that point in the flooring which our departed relative watched so constantly.”

“And whose peril roused her to such strange and sudden exertions,” added the Chevalier.

“Who knows what may not lie concealed beneath the scorched plank?” said Mademoiselle de Savarre.

“Family papers, political secrets,” suggested the Chevalier.

“Coin or jewels,” remarked the Count. “Aged people are often like magpies, in their propensity for hiding things.”

“Let us look at once!” cried the old maid, fired to activity by the suggestion.

Each had brought a chisel, or some other tool, and they set to work with a will. The solid oaken plank was soon removed, revealing a cavity between the floor and the beams of the ceiling beneath, large enough to have contained the crown-jewels of an empire, or the archives of a republic. Within there appeared something, neither papers, nor jewels, nor gold, but a long, irregularly-shaped bundle, that rattled strangely when dragged forth to the light. A cry of horror broke from the lips of the three searchers, as the dim rays of their candles fell upon the thing that they had found—a human skeleton, clothed in remnants of what had once been superfine broadcloth and delicate linen; a jeweled pin, gleaming on the discolored shirt-front; a massive seal-ring, hanging loose upon the long hand, and great stains and streaks of rusty-brown upon the linen, which was revealed by the rents in the decaying cloth, splotches; that had once been of a ghastly red.

As if turned to stone, the three seekers after wealth stood speechless, in the presence of Death and Crime.

The Chevalier was the first to recover his presence of mind.

“It is the Count de Castro!” he said, in a horror-stricken whisper. “See, these are his arms!” And he picked up the seal-ring, which had dropped from the fleshless finger and rolled upon the floor.

“And who could have killed him? It must have been the Countess!” cried Mademoiselle de Savarre, trembling from head to foot.

“Hush—sh—sh!” whispered the Count, looking fearfully around. “No doubt it was she.”

“We had better hush this matter up,” remarked the Chevalier, with chattering teeth. And it was hushed up, accordingly. A roaring fire in the mighty chimney soon consumed every vestige of the poor, dried remains of what had once been the gay and gallant Count de Castro.

And when, a few years later, a grand new street was run right over the site of the demolished hotel, the few who remembered anything at all about the deceased Countess, spoke of her with bated breath, and called her “a saint upon earth.”

The Peterson Magazine, 1876: pp. 395-8

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: A dark and gothic tale, is it not? While Mrs Daffodil enjoys the odd spot of fiction but rarely, she reads such narratives as the above with a professionally critical eye. Poisoned wine was the obvious solution to the Countess’s wayward husband, yet a more bloody method was selected, perhaps in the heat of the moment. One understands the reluctance to involve others in a private domestic murder, but to leave the corpse under the floor-boards for future discovery argues a carelessness quite out of keeping with that lady’s prudent character.

Surely she and Agathe, whose annuity must have been the result of her discretion, could have managed to do what the Count, the Chevalier, and Mademoiselle de Savarre did: cremate the mummified Count de Castro in the immense fireplace. But perhaps paralysis overtook her before this could be done or it was a case such as we have seen at the courts of Versailles and of Spain, where certain members of the nobility feel that certain tasks are beneath them. Mrs Daffodil seems to remember a King of Spain who died because no person of lowly-enough rank could be found to move a red-hot brazier. Perhaps the Countess did not deign to soil her blue-blooded fingers with the dishonourable corpse of a—one shudders to think of it—Bonapartist.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

 

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