The Countess de Berrmann – Part II
THE COUNTESS DE BERRMANN
BY THE AUTHOR OF “TWO HEROINES,” “NEVER ALONE,” “A STRANGE COINCIDENCE,” &c., &c
A MARRIAGE ARRANGED.
For the next few days the Countess de Berrmann was too weak to fulfil her promise of confiding her troubles to General Vernon, but by the end of the week she had so far recovered as to be able to move to her couch, with the assistance of Lily, who had become warmly attached to her patient.
The young widow was so unselfishly anxious not to give trouble, so grateful for every little kindness shown to her, that nursing her was almost a pleasure. She looked so wan and sad too, that a harder heart that that of Lily Vernon’s would have longed to do something comfort her. It was piteous to see the eager hungry look that came into her eyes at times, when she looked at her child; and once, when the General good-humouredly proposed to take the latter for a drive, she was evidently torn between anxiety lest the dancer she dreaded should befall little Stephanie, and a desire not to deprive the child of a pleasure. She let her go, but Lily was very thankful when the General brought her safely back, for though the young mother said nothing, the nervous start she gave at every sound told of the strain she was undergoing, while the look of intense relief that overspread her face as the child bounded into the room was equally eloquent.
Her story was soon told. She had married, she said, when a mere child, the Comte de Berrmann, a colonel in the French army, and a man old enough to be her father. But she had been devotedly attached to him. Her previous life had been lonely and uncared-for. Her parents had died before she was eight years old, and she had been brought up by her grandfather – a retired Indian officer- who had regarded her as a burden, so that the loving care of her husband had elicited warm response in her heart. For eight years life had been very sweet to her, but then came the cruel war, which bereft her of her only protector from the miseries of this hard world. True, she was not alone, for she had her chid, but the little one was innocent cause of all her anxiety.
Her husband had been a Protestant, she a Catholic, and the friends of the former were determined to deprive her of the custody of her child. Although her husband had died fighting for France, he had been born her son. His father’s family had originally been Swiss, but for two or three generations this branch of the De Berrmanns had lived in England. The Comte, however, had been educated in France, and, having entered the French army, had been ennobled for his services. Old Mrs de Berrmann, the Comte’s mother, was an ardent Protestant, and, sooner than allow her son’s child be brought up a Roman Catholic, she had declared herself ready to proceed to any extremity. She was a woman of the most determined character, and had left no stone unturned to obtain possession of her grandchild. She had circulated calumnies against the widow’s character in order to prove her to be unfit to be her child’s guardian, and the Countess, young, poor, and utterly alone (for her grandfather had died soon after her marriage), had no means of keeping her treasure but by fight. For three years she had been hunted from place to place like a wild animal, for no sooner did she rest anywhere than the emissaries of her enemy appeared on the scene.
Such was her story, as the young widow told it to her sympathetic listener, and as she concluded she asked softly,
“Can you wonder now that I doubted even you?” laying her hand gently on the General’s as she spoke.
The old man – himself a member of one of the most distinguished Roman Catholic families in England – had listened in silent indignation to the young Countess’s recital of her wrongs, but at her touch his pent-up wrath could no longer be retrained.
“I’ll save your child from that old hag, if there is justice to be had in this world,” he exclaimed fiercely. “Never mind what it may cost, my dear,” he continued, as the widow murmured something about justice being a costly article. “I’ll willingly spend my last farthing to see you righted, and what is more you shall not leave me until your Stephanie is made safe from that old woman’s clutches.”
“Oh! but you may hear the stories she tells about me, and – and – be persuaded into believing them.” she added in a whisper.
“What does she dare to say about you?”
“She says I am bringing up my child to be a nun, because I have devoted her to our Lady, and mean to force her into a convent whenever she is old enough, whether she wishes to go or not; and there are other things she says, but – but – Oh! I could not repeat them to you, they are too cruel, too dreadful. Ah! my Henri, my Henri, to think it is your mother who is so wicked,” and the lonely girl – for she was little more – gave way to a paroxysm of grief, and sobbed as though her heart would break!
Lily, who had been a silent but warmly sympathetic listener hitherto, now hurried to her assistance, while the General leant over the couch vainly trying to sooth her.
“Let her cry for a few moments, papa, – poor darling, it will reliever her,” said Lily gently.
“But I am afraid of her bringing on another of her attacks. Poor girl, she looks little fitted to battle with the world;” he added sotto voce, as he stroked the thin hand that lay so confidingly in his.
“It is better for her to have a good cry, than to make her restrain her tears,” persisted Lily; and she was right. In a few minutes the widow’s grief had spent itself for the moment, and though she was exhausted, her crying had evidently relieved her.
“Ah, you are better,” exclaimed Lily, as the Countess turned round and tried to raise herself, “but I am not going to let you say another word. Go away, papa, my patient has talked much more than is good for her, and now she must be very obedient and go to sleep when I tell her,” she added, smoothing the pillows and laying the invalid down tenderly.
The General pressed the hand he held and left the room as he was bid, determined to take steps for the frustration of old Mrs de Berrmann’s designs as soon as her poor young daughter-in-law would be able to give him all the necessary instructions. In her present weak state, however, he felt it would be unwise to expose her to fresh agitation, so that there was nothing to be done until she recovered.
It was a week before the Countess was able to leave her couch, and the General and Lily spent most of their time endeavouring to amuse her, carefully avoiding any allusion to agitating topics. At the end of that time her kind nurses had the satisfaction of seeing their invalid so far better as to be able to join them in their drives, and another week was spent in making pleasant excursions in the neighbourhood. It was difficult to say which of the party most enjoyed these expeditions. Stephanie grew almost wild with enjoyment, while Lily was little better, and while the widow expressed her pleasure more quietly it was evidently none the less deep. But perhaps it was the General who enjoyed himself most. Every day the young Countess’s society grew more fascinating to him, until one morning he awoke to the consciousness that it was rapidly becoming a necessity to him.
The discovery was almost a shock to him. There was something positively startling in the idea, he considered, of a man at his time of lie falling in love with a lady he had only known for three weeks, and whom he had first met in a railway train. But nevertheless the idea was not altogether unpleasant, and when it was succeeded by a second, to the effect that perhaps the lady returned his affection, it became altogether pleasant.
He then became impressed with the advisability of his making a second marriage. He had mourned his first wife for seventeen years, so he felt he might now form new ties without any slight to her memory. Then there was Lily to be thought of. It was positively his duty to marry again for her sake alone. Just entering life as she was, she of course needed a mother’s care, and the Countess, though still young to be a companion and friend to her, had had so much experience that she would be well able to guide and advise her. As to the widow herself, how could he better fulfil his promise of protecting her and her child than by making her his wife? Yes, let her once give him such a right to protect her, and he would defy Mrs de Berrmann to do her worst.
Having made up his mind, General Vernon was not a man to hesitate. That very day he determined to learn his fate, and, having sent Lily and Stephanie out for a walk, he found an opportunity of speaking to the Countess alone. At first she was so much startled that the General found it difficult to make her understand what he meant. When at length he succeeded in doing so, she was indignant and reproached him with having taken an unfair advantage of her lonely and friendless condition. She had looked upon him merely as a friend, and he had misunderstood her sentiments entirely. She would never marry again. Her hearts was with her dead Henri, and it seemed almost profanation to his memory to talk to her of love. She rose as she concluded, and swept into her bedroom, looking so gently dignified, but at the same time so hurt and grieved, that the General was angry with himself for his precipitancy. Before he had recovered from his dismay at the unlooked for termination of his suit, he heard a rush of feet on the stairs, and Stephanie, looking white and scared, burst into the room, closely followed by Lily, who appeared scarcely less agitated.
“Maman, maman, we must fly – the horrid man – oh, where is maman, we have not a moment to lose.”
“What is the matter, my darling, what has happened? Lily, speak, tell me what is it?”
“I don’t know, papa, indeed I don’t. We were walking quietly along the road towards the Brunne when we saw three men resting under a tree. The moment Stephanie saw them she seized my hand and pulled me back, and then ran off, never stopping until we got here.”
Long before Lily had finished this explanation Stephanie had rushed off to her mother’s room, and now the Countess appeared holding the child by the hand. She was calm outwardly, but her trembling lip and white face told of the agitation she was endeavouring to repress. She walked up to the General and placing her hand in his, she whispered, “For the sake of Henri’s child I will forget Henri’s memory. Forgive what I said just now.”
The General sprang up, and, to Lily’s amazement, clasped the widow in his arms. For a moment the young Countess let her head rest on her protector’s breast, but it was only for a moment. Gently extricating herself from his embrace, she whispered, “Lily will not understand.”
“Lily, dear; I forgot you were there. This is now your mother,” the General said, drawing the widow again towards him; “you love her already for her own sake, you must lover still more for mine.”
For a moment Lily could not answer. She had never contemplated such a result of their friendship with the Countess de Berrmann, and a feeling of dismay stole into her heart. There was also a keen sense of personal disappointment mingled with it, for ever since she had grown to girlhood, the prospect of keeping her father’s house when he returned from India had been her day-dream. Now her castle in the air had vanished, but in addition to her own disappointment she disliked the engagement for her father’s sake. She liked the young Countess very much, but it was one thing to pity and befriend a lonely stranger, and quite another to accept her as a stepmother.
The General noticed her embarrassment, and exclaimed somewhat impatiently,
“Well, Lily, have you nothing to say?”
“Dear Lily is startled, and no wonder,” said the Countess, coming to her rescue. “But you will try to love me, will you not, darling?” she continued, holding out her disengaged hand.
Before Lily could reply, Stephanie, who had been standing near the window, alternately gazing in bewildered perplexity at the scene that was taking place in the room, and casting frightened glances along the road, exclaimed,
“Maman, Maman, he is coming; he is coming!”
“Oh, my child, how could I forget you for a moment,” exclaimed the Countess in tones of dismay, clasping her child in her arms, and looking up in helpless terror to the General.
“Don’t tremble so, my poor child, remember our Stephanie is in my care now,” he said tenderly.
“I know, I know, but if you only knew how I dread that man. He has dogged me from place to place, till I feel like a hunted animal.”
“But he dare not touch your child, my darling, he dare not, I assure you. The law will not allow him.”
“Ah! but that is just what I fear. They say that the law can take away my child. I don’t understand these things, so can’t explain it properly; but they say the law of England would allow my darling to be snatched away from me.”
“The law of England! What do you mean, dearest?”
“Ah! I can’t tell exactly. I only know that the Lord Chancellor could put me in prison because I won’t give up my darling,” said the poor widow, bursting into sobs.
“Is she a ward of Chancery?” asked the General anxiously.
“Yes, yes, that is it. They made her that, you know, because Henri said in his will she was to be brought up a Protestant, and because she will have her grandfather’s property when she grows up.”
“I did not understand that!” exclaimed General Vernon, suddenly awaking to the fact that he knew very little of his fiancée’s antecedents.
But he had no time for reflection, for the young Countess sprang up, exclaiming, “But oh! Why are we delaying? That man may be upon us any moment. Do let us leave at once,” and she raised her tearful eyes imploringly to his face.
General Vernon felt perplexed. He objected to run away from any danger. But his knowledge of English law was about as vague as that of the Countess’s, and he had a hazy notion that there were ugly penalties attaching to any interference between the Lord Chancellor and his wards, so he felt it would be wiser to feel his ground before he took any open steps of defiance. Under these circumstances he reluctantly consented to leave Innsbruck that very evening, consoling himself with the reflection that the peril which made them beat a retreat would afford him a very legitimate excuse for pressing the Countess to marry him without all the usual delay, for trousseau, &c. There were no friends who had a claim to be consulted on either side, and were he once her husband he flattered himself he would manage to protect the widow and her child from all her enemies, including the Lord Chancellor himself.
(To be continued.)
THE COUNTESS DE BERRMANN .
Aberdeen Weekly Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland), Saturday, April 23, 1881; Issue 6953.
Gale Document Number: BA3205744059
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