The Countess de Berrmann
THE COUNTESS DE BERRMANN
BY THE AUTHOR OF “TWO HEROINES,” “NEVER ALONE,” “A STRANGE COINCIDENCE,” &c., &c
CHAPTER I – FELLOW PASSENGERS.
“Allow me, madam,” said General Vernon, a courtly old gentleman; and as he spoke he leant forward to relieve a lady of her travelling bag, which she was vainly struggling to put into the railway carriage with one hand, while she held a little girl, of apparently eight or nine, by the other.
The lady bowed her thanks but did not speak, and seated herself in the furthest corner of the carriage from that occupied by General Vernon, with the evident intention of avoiding any conversation with him. She was dressed in deep mourning, being literally enveloped in crape, for she wore a long crape veil that completely covered the upper part of her figure. Her little girl formed a strong contrast to her, for she was dressed entirely in white, with a broad blue ribbon around her neck, from which hung a silver medal. As the train started the lady gave the child a doll, and whispering to her in French to “sit still and be good,” threw herself back in her corner and became wrapt in her own thoughts. They were evidently of a painful nature, for though she strove to conceal her emotion, her travelling companion noticed that the hand that held her handkerchief often stole to her eyes. Miss Vernon, herself motherless, pitied her with all the ready sympathy of a girl of eighteen, while General Vernon longed to offer his, but the widow so plainly wished to avoid any intercourse with him or his daughter that it was impossible for him to address her.
Although it was late in the autumn the day was warm, and after travelling in silence and almost motionless for nearly two hours, the lady felt the heat of the carriage oppressive, and leant forward to let down the window. It was stiff, or she was so weak that the effort of opening it was beyond her strength, and seeing her in difficulties General Vernon once more came to her assistance. He was disappointed to find that the lady again merely bowed, and he thought rather indignantly that she might have vouchsafed at least a “thank you;” but his heat smote him when he noticed the cause of her silence. She was lying back faint and trembling and evidently in great pain, for her hand was pressed to her side, and her breath came in short gasps. The sight overcame the kind old man’s British reserve, and he exclaimed, “You are ill, I am afraid. Lily, perhaps you can help this lady,” he added turning to his daughter.
Miss Vernon sprang up, and producing smelling salts from her bag, offered them to the invalid, while the little girl jumped up and began stroking her mother’s hand with her own two little plump ones, murmuring “Pauvre maman, pauvre maman.”
The lady took the smelling-bottle, but making a strong effort to recover herself she courteously, but very distantly, declined all further proffers of help. Hardly, however, had Miss Vernon returned to her seat than she was startled by hearing a faint cry, and looking across she saw the widow lying back, while on the handkerchief she pressed to her lips was a large crimson stain. Without a moment’s delay Miss Vernon threw up the heavy veil and in the midst of her alarm, she was struck with the beauty of the face it had concealed, as well as by its wan sad expression. But she could only bestow a passing thought on the beauty of the young stranger, for blood, trickled so fast from her pale lips that the handkerchief with which she endeavoured to staunch it was becoming saturated.
“Oh papa, papa, what shall we do?” Miss Vernon exclaimed in terrified tones, “the lady must have broken a blood vessel.”
The widow smiled feebly and shook her head.
“It is nothing,” she whispered, “I am accustomed to attacks of this kind.”
“Hush, hush, pray don’t attempt to speak,” answered Miss Vernon, as even the slight exertion of whispering increased the haemorrhage.
The little girl was evidently accustomed to her mother’s attacks, for while General Vernon and his daughter were leaning over the invalid in helpless consternation, she scrambled down from the seat, opened her mother’s travelling-bag, and produced a small phial.
“Maman must have twenty drops of this – the doctor said so – when she is ill like this,”
“You clever little thing,” exclaimed Miss Vernon, as she took the phial and medicine glass the child held up to her.
She poured out the required quantity, and gave it to the invalid, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing the ruddy stream cease to trickle.
“Maman must go to bed and keep quite still for three or four days,” said the child, with a sagacious nod of the head.
“But where are you going to? Have you much further to travel to-day?” asked the General.
“We go to Venice,” replied the little girl, her accent leaving the Vernons in doubt whether she were French of English.
“To Venice? It is utterly impossible for your mother to travel so far in her present state.”
“I must try,” whispered the widow, attempting to lift her head, which Miss Vernon was supporting on her shoulder in the hope of preventing the shaking the carriage bringing on the haemorrhage again.
“Indeed you must not attempt such a thing. My daughter and I are to stay a few days in Innsbruck, and I trust you will allow her to have the pleasure of nursing you until you are quite restored to health,”
“You are very good, but it is quite impossible.”
“But Maman, you know what the doctor said,” broke in in the little girl almost petulantly.
“And what did the doctor say?” asked Miss Vernon.
“He said she must lie very still after her attacks, for that moving might kill her.”
“Hush, my dear,” said her mother feebly. “I must indeed go on,” she added, turning to General Vernon, “and I ought to apologise for giving you so much trouble. I am much better now, thank you,” she added, trying to sit up; but as she spoke a return of the haemorrhage contradicted her assertion, and she sank back almost unconscious.
While she was still in this condition the train drew up at Innsbruck, and General Vernon decided that it was quite impossible to permit her to continue her journey. Accordingly, in spite of her feeble and incoherent protests against being detained, he lifted her out of the train and supported her to the nearest carriage, while Miss Vernon took charge of the little girl.
“Now you must stay here, while I go and see about the luggage. But how am I to manage about this lady’s,” continued the General, as he suddenly recollected that he did not know her name.
The little girl, however, was quite equal to the occasion, and proved herself an experienced traveller. First arming herself with the tickets which she had found in her mother’s bag, she slipped her hand confidently into the General’s and led him off to the official in charge of the luggage. It required all her volubility to make that individual understand that although the luggage was booked to Venice, it was required to be given up at Innsbruck on account of the owner’s sudden illness. The General was completely routed at the outset and found relief in expressing his sentiments as to the stupidity of foreigners in very plain English, but the little lady stood her ground. German flowed as easily from her lips as French, and after much gesticulation, explanation and expostulation, she finally gained her point, and the man reluctantly agreed to give up the luggage.
“Madame la Comtesse de Berrmann,” the General noticed, was the name on the address of the boxes she claimed, and turning to the child he said, “Your luggage has told me your mamma’s name, so will you tell me yours? Mine is General Vernon.”
“General Vernon! Oh, what a pretty name,” and the General thought it sounded very pretty as pronounced by those cherry lips, while a pair of clear blue eyes were raised with childish frankness to his face. “I think my name is pretty – at least it would be pretty but for the ending. It is the Cometesse Stephanie de Bermrman – and Bermann is ugly, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think it is al all ugly,” said the old General; “and Comtesse Stephanie is charming.”
“You mustn’t call me Comtesse Stephanie. I am too little for anyone but the servants to call me that. Just say Stephanie.”
“Well, Stephanie, we must hurry back to your poor mamma. She will think I have run away with her little girl.”
“Ah, poor mamma. She will not think of me just now; she is too ill,” and the child’s eyes filled with tears.
“Don’t cry, dear, don’t cry – your mamma will soon be better,” said General Vernon, affecting assurance he did not feel, for the poor young Comtesse de Berrmann certainly looked as though she was not long for this world, as he caught sight of her lying pale and deathlike in his daughter’s arms, while a group of sympathetic porters and officials were standing around the carriage. One of the asked, as the General came up, whether he should fetch a doctor.
“Oh! Of course we must have one at once,” he answered.
The widow raised herself and began an eager protest, while the little girl exclaimed hastily, “mais non, mais non – I mean but no. we do not want any stupid doctor, for see here! I have all mamma’s prescriptions, and the great Paris doctors have written down exactly what she ought to do when she has one of her attacks. She has them so often.” She handed the General a sheet of paper as she spoke. It contained minute directions what to do in order to stop the haemorrhage, and how to treat the patient when it had ceased; while the Countess’s bag supplied all the required remedies as far as medicines and lotions went, the remainder of the treatment recommended being complete rest to mind and body.
“The best thing we can do is to go to the nearest hotel,” said General Vernon, as he handed the physician’s instructions to his daughter’ “and you can see these carried out. They seem very clear and simple.”
The luggage coming up at that moment it was put on another carriage, and the party started at a foot’s pace, so as not to incommode the invalid. On arriving at the hotel the young Countess was supported to her room where Miss Vernon tended her with the utmost kindness, and soon after she had taken the prescribed medicine, she dropped into a refreshing sleep.
In order to prevent the mother being disturbed Miss Vernon carried off Stephanie to the sitting-room that had been engaged for herself and her father, which communicated with the one in which the Countess was. The child very soon made friends. She was a winning little thing, for without being in the least forward she had none of the shyness most children of her age are trouble with, while the mixture of precocious wisdom and innocent frankness she displayed was most amusing. The old General completely lost his heart to her, and Miss Vernon was equally fascinated.
“Where did you get all those golden curls from?” the former asked as the child, taking off her little white hood, released a shower of bright fair hair.
“Ah, you should see maman’s when she does not hide it all away under that horrid cap she always will wear since poor papa was killed.”
“Was killed!” ejaculated Miss Vernon half involuntarily.
“Yes, my papa was a General like yours; and those horrid Prussians killed him at the siege of Metz.”
“You mean he was killed in a battle?”
“Ah! But it was glorious!” and the little thing clasped her hands, and the fire which shone in her eyes showed she was a trues soldier’s daughter.
The General was completely overcome for a moment as he patted the child’s head approvingly.
“But it is terrible for poor maman. She is all alone now except for me, and they want to take me from her.”
“Take you from her!”
“Yes, it was that that made her cry in the train. But I won’t go to those horrid people. I’ll never leave maman – never, never, never,” and the little thing stamped her foot and clutched her tiny hands with passion.
At that moment a low moan was heard from the sick room.
“Hush, hush, dear, don’t speak so loud, you have awakened your mamma,” whispered Miss Vernon, rising and going to the invalid’s assistance.
She was better physically, but was sobbing so violently as to threaten to bring on a return of the haemorrhage.
In vain Miss Vernon attempted to sooth her. Every word of sympathy only elicited a fresh paroxysm of grief.
“Oh, my darling, my darling, my Henri’s child,” she murmured, almost unconscious that she was speaking aloud.
Stephane crept up to the side of the couch on which her mother was lying and laid her head on the cushion, saying caressingly,
“Do not cry, maman, do not cry. I will not go away from you. Ah! And the General, he will help us. He is so good.”
“Hush, hush, darling. No one can help us, no one,” and the poor woman shuddered, and strained her child to her breast, as though she feared she would be snatched from her.
Miss Vernon’s eyes filled with tears as she looked at the poor young widow, and thought it must indeed be a hard hearted being who could bereave her of her child.
“I am sure papa will help you, if he can,” she said, aloud. “Do let him try.”
The widow shook her head mournfully, but Stephanie jumped up and threw her arms round Miss Vernon’s neck, exclaiming – “Ah! I knew you were good’ you are so pretty; so, so, what you say, ah! Gentle. Tell them, maman. Tell them about the cruel people that would carry me off. See! I will bring the General,” and, in spite of her mother’s protests, the child ran off and immediately returned pulling the general by the hand.
“Your little daughter said I could aid you,” he said, kindly, as he stooped over the couch; “but are you well enough to speak just now. Had we not better wait until you are stronger? But, believe me, I shall gladly do all in my power to help you in any way.”
“You are very good, but I thought not to trouble you with my affairs. Only, I am so helpless, so friendless,” she added, looking up with the piteous simplicity of a lonely child.
“Then you must let me be your friend’ and Lily, I am sure, will be as pleased as myself to help you in any way we can.”
“Indeed, indeed, I will,” Miss Vernon whispered, as she knelt down and kissed the widow’s pale cheek.
The young Countess pressed her hand, but did not reply for a few moments. She seemed lost in thought, and it was with an evident effort that at length she said, “Do not think me ungrateful or – or – “ She paused, as though she shrank from expressing her thoughts, and a faint flush overspread her face as she added, “or unduly suspicious. If you knew all I had suffered from so-called friends you would forgive me. Ah! Do not be angry,” she exclaimed, as she perceived the colour mount to General Vernon’s face and he was about to reply – “I do trust you, I do indeed. It was only for a moment I thought it might be another plot to rob me of my darling.”
“If you would rather I did not meddle, however,” began the General rather stiffly, –
“Ah! You are angry still, and no wonder. How could I be so wicked as to suspect you, but if you knew what my life has been like for the last three years you would understand, you would forgive me,” she added softly, again lifting her great violet eyes pleadingly to the General’s face.
“Nay, nay, there is nothing to forgive,” said the old man ashamed of his momentary warmth. “You are right to be cautious, and just tell me as little or as much as you please, all I care to know is how I can help you.”
“Then to-morrow evening I will tell you all”; all she repeated emphatically, “but I iave a pain here,” she said, touching her left side, “which warns me, I must be quiet now.”
“You will be better in bed. Let my daughter help you; and now good-night. I trust you will be strong to-morrow.”
(To be continued.)
THE COUNTESS DE BERRMANN; .
Aberdeen Weekly Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland), Saturday, April 16, 1881; Issue 6952.
19th Century British Newspapers
Gale Document Number: BA3205743883
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