Bonnie Prince Charlie; A Tale of Fontenoy and Culloden

CHAPTER VI: The Convent of Our Lady.

Arrived at Tours, Malcolm took a quiet lodging in a retired street.

Colonel Hume had furnished him with a regular discharge, testifying that the bearer, Malcolm Anderson, had served his time in the 2d Scotch Dragoons, and was now discharged as being past service, and that he recommended him as a steady man for any employment for which he might be suited. Malcolm showed this document to his landlord in order that the latter might, as required by law, duly give notice to the police of the name and occupation of his lodger, and at the same time mentioned that the relations of his wife lived near Tours, and that he hoped through them to be able to obtain some sort of employment.

As soon as they were settled in their lodgings they went out, and after a few inquiries found themselves in front of the convent of Our Lady. It was a massive building, in a narrow street near the river, to which its grounds, surrounded by a high wall, extended. None of the windows of the building looked towards the street, upon which the massive gate, with a small wicket entrance, opened.

“What building is this?” Malcolm, in a careless tone, asked a woman who was sitting knitting at her door nearly opposite the entrance. “I am a stranger in Tours.”

“That needs no telling,” the woman replied, “or you would have known that that is the convent of Our Lady, one of the richest in Touraine, and they say in all France. Though what they do with their riches is more than I can tell, seeing that the rules are of the strictest, and that no one ever comes beyond the gates. They have their own grounds down to the river, and there is a walk along the wall there where they take the air of an evening when the weather is fine. Poor things, I pity them from my soul.”

“But I suppose they all came willingly,” Malcolm said; “so there is no need for pity.”

“I don’t know about willingly,” the woman said. “I expect most of them took the veil rather than marry the men their fathers provided for them, or because they were in the way of someone who wanted their lands, or because their lovers had been killed in the war, just as if grief for a lover was going to last one’s life. Besides, they are not all sisters.

They say there’s many a lady of good family shut up there till she will do her father’s will. ‘Well, well,’ I often says to myself, ‘they may have all the riches of France inside those walls, but I would rather sit knitting at my door here than have a share of them.'”

“You are a wise woman,” Malcolm said. “There is nothing like freedom.

Give me a crust, and a sod for my pillow, rather than gold plates inside a prison. I have been a soldier all my life, and have had my share of hard knocks; but I never grumbled so long as I was on a campaign, though I often found it dull work enough when in garrison.”

“Oh, you have been a soldier! I have a brother in the regiment of Touraine. Perhaps you know him?”

“I know the regiment of Touraine,” Malcolm said; “and there are no braver set of men in the king’s service. What is his name?”

“Pierre Pitou. I have not heard of him for the last two years. He is a tall man, and broad, with a scar over the left eye.”

“To be sure, to be sure!” Malcolm said. “Of course, Pierre Pitou is one of my best friends; and now I think of it, madam, I ought to know without asking, so great is his resemblance to you. Why, his last words to me were, ‘If you go to Tours, seek out my sister, who lives in a house nearly opposite the entrance to the convent of Our Lady;’ and to think I should have forgotten all about it till I saw you!”

Malcolm remained for a quarter of an hour chatting with the woman about her brother, and then, promising to call again the next day in the evening to be introduced to her husband, he rejoined Ronald, who had been waiting at the corner of the lane, and had been fidgeting with impatience at the long interview between Malcolm and the woman.

“What have you been talking about all this time, Malcolm, and what could you have to say to a stranger?”

“I have been telling her all about her brother, Pierre Pitou of the Touraine regiment, and how he distinguished himself at Dettingen, and will surely be made a sergeant, with a hope some day of getting to be a captain. I have quite won her heart.”

“But who is Pierre Pitou, and when did you know him?” Ronald asked surprised.

“He is a tall man with broad shoulders and a scar over his left eye,”

Malcolm said laughing, and he then related the whole conversation.

“But why did you pretend to this poor woman that you knew her brother?”

“Because she may be very useful to us, Ronald; and if you can’t find a friend in court, it’s just as well to have one near court. She is a gossiping woman, and like enough she may know some of the lay sisters, who are, in fact, the servants of the convent, and come out to buy supplies of food and other things, and who distribute the alms among the poor. I don’t know what advantage will come of it yet, Ronald; but I can see I have done a great stroke of business, and feel quite an affection for my friend Pierre Pitou.”

Malcolm followed up the acquaintance he had made, and soon established himself as a friend of the family. Ronald did not accompany him on any of his visits, for as the plan of proceeding was still undecided, he and Malcolm agreed that it was better that he should not show himself until some favourable opportunity offered.

Sometimes towards evening he and Malcolm would take a boat and float down the stream past the convent walls, and Ronald would wonder which of the figures whose heads he could perceive as they walked upon the terrace, was that of his mother. It was not until Malcolm had become quite at home with Madame Vipon that he again turned the conversation towards the convent. He learned that she had often been inside the walls, for before her marriage she had worked at a farm whence the convent drew a portion of its supplies; milk, butter, and eggs, and she had often carried baskets to the convent.

“Of course I never went beyond the outer court,” she said; “but Farmer Miron’s daughter — it was he owned the farm — is a lay sister there.

She was crossed in love, poor girl. She liked Andre, the son of a neighbouring farmer, but it was but a small place by the side of that of Miron, and her father would not hear of it, but wanted her to marry Jacques Dubois, the rich miller, who was old enough to be her father.

Andre went to the wars and was killed; and instead of changing when the news came, as her father expected, and taking up with the miller, she hated him worse than ever, and said that he was the cause of Andre’s death; so the long and short of it was, she came as a lay sister to the convent here. Of course she never thought of taking the vows, for to do that here one must be noble and be able to pay a heavy dowry to the convent.

“So she is just a lay sister, a sort of servant, you know, but she is a favourite and often goes to market for them, and when she does she generally drops in here for a few minutes for a talk; for though she was only a child when I was at the farm we were great friends, and she hears from me how all the people she used to know are getting on.”

“I suppose she knows all the ladies who reside in the convent as well as the sisters?”

“Oh, yes, and much better than the sisters! It is on them she waits. She does not see much of the sisters, who keep to their own side of the house, and have very little to do with the visitors, or as one might call them the prisoners, for that is what most of them really are.”

“Now I think of it,” Malcolm said, “one of the officers I served under had a relation, a lady, whom I have heard him say, when he was talking to another officer, is shut up here, either because she wouldn’t marry some one her father didn’t want her to, I forget exactly what it was now. Let me see, what was her name. Elise — no, that wasn’t it. Amelie — Amelie de Recambours — yes, that was it.”

“Oh, yes, I know the name! I have heard Jeanne speak of her. Jeanne said it was whispered among them that she had really married somebody against her father’s will. At any rate she has been there ever so many years, and they have not made her take the veil, as they do most of them if they are obstinate and won’t give way. Poor thing! Jeanne says she is very pretty still, though she must be nearly forty now.”

“That is very interesting,” Malcolm said; “and if you will not mind, Madam Vipon, I will write to the officer of whom I spoke and tell him his cousin is alive and well. I was his servant in the regiment, and I know, from what I have heard him say, he was very much attached to her. There can be no harm in that, you know,” he said, as Madam Vipon looked doubtful; “but if you would prefer it, of course I will not say how I have heard.”

“Yes, that will be better,” she agreed. “There is never any saying how things come round; and though there’s no harm in what I have told you, still it’s ill gossiping about what takes place inside convent walls.”

“I quite agree with you, my dear Madam Vipon, and admire your discretion.

It is singular how you take after your brother. Pierre Pitou had the reputation of being the most discreet man in the regiment of Touraine.”

Ronald was very excited when he heard from Malcolm that he had actually obtained news at second hand as to his mother, and it was with difficulty that his friend persuaded him to allow matters to go on as he proposed.

“It will never do to hurry things now, Ronald; everything is turning out beyond our expectations. A fortnight ago it seemed absolutely hopeless that you should communicate with your mother; now things are in a good train for it.”

Accordingly Malcolm made no further allusion to the subject to Madame Vipon until a fortnight had passed; then he said, on calling on her one day:

“Do you know, my dear Madam Vipon, I have had a letter from the gentleman of whom I was speaking to you. He is full of gratitude at the news I sent him. I did not tell him from whom I had heard the news, save that it was from one of the kindest of women, the sister of an old comrade of mine.

He has sent me this” — and he took out a small box which he opened, and showed a pretty gold broach, with earrings to match — “and bid me to give it in his name to the person who had sent him this good news.”

“That is beautiful,” Madam Vipon said, clapping her hands; “and I have so often wished for a real gold broach! Won’t my husband open his eyes when he sees them!”

“I think, if I might advise, my dear madam,” Malcolm said, “I should not give him the exact history of them. He might take it into his head that you had been gossiping, although there is no woman in the world less given to gossiping than you are. Still, you know what husbands are.

Therefore, if I were you I would tell him that your brother Pierre had sent them to you through me, knowing, you see, that you could not have read a letter even if he could have written one.”

“Yes, perhaps that would be the best,” Madam Vipon said; “but you had better write to Pierre and tell him. Otherwise when he comes home, and my husband thanks him for them, he might say he had never sent them, and there would be a nice affair.”

“I will do so,” Malcolm said; “but in any case I am sure your wit would have come to the rescue, and you would have said that you had in fact bought them from your savings; but that thinking your husband might grumble at your little economies you had thought it best to say that they came from your brother.”

“Oh, fie, monsieur; I am afraid you are teaching me to tell stories.”

“That is a very hard word, my dear madam. You know as well as I do that without a little management on both sides husbands and wives would never get on well together; but now I want to tell you more. Not only does my old master write to say how glad he is to hear of his cousin’s welfare, but he has told me a great deal more about the poor lady, and knowing your kindness of heart I do not hesitate to communicate the contents of his letter to you. The Countess Amelie de Recambours was secretly married to a young officer, a great friend of my late master, and her father did not discover it until after the birth of a child — a boy. Then she was shut up here. The father got the boy safely away to Scotland, but he has now come back to France. I do not suppose the poor lady has ever heard of her little son since, and it would be an act of kindness and mercy to let her know that he is alive and well.”

“Yes, indeed, poor creature,” Madame Vipon said sympathetically. “Only to think of being separated from your husband, and never hearing of your child for all these years!”

“I knew your tender heart would sympathize with her,” Malcolm said; “she is indeed to be pitied.”

“And what became of her husband?”

“I fancy he died years ago; but my master says nothing about him. He only writes of the boy, who it seems is so delighted with the news about his mother that he is coming here to see if it is possible to have an interview with her.”

“But it is not possible,” Madam Vipon exclaimed. “How can he see her, shut up as she is in that convent?”

“Yes, it is difficult,” Malcolm agreed; “but nothing is impossible, my dear madam, when a woman of heart like yourself takes a matter in hand; and I rely, I can tell you, greatly on your counsel; as to your goodwill, I am assured of that beforehand.”

“But it is quite, quite, quite impossible, I assure you, my good Monsieur Anderson.”

“Well, let us see. Now I know that you would suggest that the first measure to be taken is to open communication between mother and son, and there I heartily agree with you.”

“That would be the first thing of course, monsieur; but how is that to be done?”

“Now that is where I look to you, madam. Your friend Jeanne waits upon her, you see, and I know your quick wit will already have perceived that Jeanne might deliver a message. I am sure that she would never be your friend had she not a warm heart like your own, and it will need very little persuasion on your part, when you have told her this sad story, to induce her to bring gladness to this unfortunate lady.”

“Yes; but think of the consequences, Monsieur Anderson: think what would happen if it were found out.”

“Yes, if there were any talk of the countess running away from the convent I would not on any condition ask you to assist in such a matter; but what is this — merely to give a message, a few harmless words.”

“But you said an interview, Monsieur Anderson.”

“An interview only if it is possible, my dear madam, that is quite another matter, and you know you said that it was quite impossible. All that we want now is just a little message, a message by word of mouth which not even the keenest eye can discover or prevent; there can be no harm in that.”

“No, I don’t think there can be much harm in that,” Madam Vipon agreed;

“at any rate I will talk to Jeanne. It will be her day for going to market tomorrow; I will tell her the story of the poor lady, and I think I can answer beforehand that she will do everything she can.”

The following afternoon Malcolm again saw Madam Vipon, who told him that although she had not actually promised she had no doubt Jeanne would deliver the message.

“She will be out again on Saturday, monsieur, at nine in the morning, and if you will be here with the boy, if he has arrived by that time, you shall speak to her.”

At the time appointed Malcolm, with Ronald, attired now as a young French gentleman, arrived at the house of Madam Vipon, who was warmly thanked by Ronald for the interest she had taken in him.

“My friend here has spoken to me in the highest terms of you, Madam Vipon, and I am sure that all that he has said is no more than the truth.”

“I am sure I will do all I can,” replied Madam Vipon, who was greatly taken by Ronald’s appearance and manner; “it’s a cruel thing separating a mother from a son so many years, and after all what I am doing is no hanging matter anyway.”

A few minutes later Jeanne entered; she was a pleasant looking woman of five or six and twenty, and even her sombre attire as a lay sister failed to give a formal look to her merry face.

“So these are the gentlemen who want me to become a conspirator,” she said, “and to run the risk of all sorts of punishment and penalties for meddling in their business?”

“Not so much my business as the business of my mother,” Ronald said. “You who have such true heart of your own, for madam has told us something of your story, will, I am sure, feel for that poor lady shut up for fifteen years, and knowing not whether her child is dead or alive. If we could but see each other for five minutes, think what joy it would be to her, what courage her poor heart would take.”

“See each other!” Jeanne repeated surprised. “You said nothing about that, Francoise; you only said take a message. How can they possibly see each other? That’s a different thing altogether.”

“I want you to take a message first,” Ronald said. “If nothing more can be done that will be very much; but I cannot think but that you and my mother between you will be able to hit upon some plan by which we might meet.”

“But how,” Jeanne asked in perplexity, “how could it possibly be?”

“For example,” Ronald suggested; “could I not come in as a lay sister? I am not much taller than you, and could pass very well as a girl.”

Jeanne burst our laughing.

“You do not know what you are saying, monsieur; it would be altogether impossible. People do not get taken on as lay sisters in the convent of Our Lady unless they are known; besides, in other ways it would be altogether impossible, and even if it were not it might be years before you could get to speak to the countess, for there are only two or three of us who ever enter the visitors’ rooms; and lastly, if you were found out I don’t know what would be done to both of us. No, that would never do at all.”

“Well, in the next place, I could climb on to the river terrace at night, and perhaps she could come and speak to me there.”

“That is more possible,” Jeanne said thoughtfully; “but all the doors are locked up at night.”

“But she might get out of a window,” Ronald urged; “with a rope ladder she could get down, and then return again, and none be the wiser.”

Jeanne sat silent for a minute, and then she asked suddenly:

“Are you telling me all, monsieur, or are you intending that the countess shall escape with you?”

“No, indeed, on my honour!” Ronald exclaimed. “I have nowhere where I could take my mother. She would be pursued and brought back, and her position would be far worse than it is now. No; I swear to you that I only want to see her and to speak to her, and I have nothing else whatever in my mind.”

“I believe you, monsieur,” Jeanne said gravely. “Had it been otherwise I dare not have helped, for my punishment if I was discovered to have aided in an escape from the convent would be terrible — terrible!” she repeated with a shudder. “As to the other, I will risk it; for a gentler and kinder lady I have never met. And yet I am sure she must be very, very brave to have remained firm for so many years. At any rate I will give her your message.”

Ronald took from a small leather bag, which he wore round his neck, a tiny gold chain with a little cross.

“I had this round my neck when I was taken away as a child to Scotland.

No doubt she put it there, and will recognize it. Say to her only: ‘He whom you have not seen since he was an infant is in Tours, longing above all things to speak to you;’ that is all my message. Afterwards, if you will, you can tell her what we have said, and how I long to see her. How high is her room from the ground? Because if it is high it will be better that I should climb to her window, than that she should descend and ascend again.”

Jeanne shook her head.

“That could not be,” she said. “The visitors have all separate cells, but the partitions do not go up to the ceiling; and even if you entered, not a word could be spoken without being overheard. But fortunately she is on the first floor, and I am sure she is not one to shrink from so little a matter as the descent of a ladder in order to have an interview with her son.”

That same afternoon as Amelie de Recambours was proceeding from the refectory to her cell, following several of her fellow captives, her attendant Jeanne came out from one of the cells. Glancing behind to see that no one was following, she put her finger on her lips and then whispered: “Make some excuse not to go into the garden with the others this evening. It is most important.” Then she glided back into the room from which she had come.

The countess followed the others in a state of almost bewilderment. For sixteen years nothing had occurred to break the monotony of her existence. At first occasional angry messages reached her from her father, with orders to join an application to the pope for a divorce; but when it had been found impossible to overcome her steady refusals the messages had at last ceased, and for years no word from the outer world had reached her, although she had learned from those who from time to time came to share her captivity what was passing outside. Whether her husband was alive or dead she knew not. They had told her over and over again that he was dead; but the fact that she had never had the option given her of accepting another husband or taking the final vows kept hope alive. For she was convinced that if he was really dead, efforts would be made to compel her to marry again.

What, then, she wondered to herself, could this communication so secretly given mean? She regarded the lay sister who attended upon her as a happy looking young woman whose face was in strong contrast to most of those within the walls of the convent; but she had exchanged but few words with her, knowing that she would be but a short time about her. For the policy of the abbess was to change the attendants upon the ladies in their charge frequently, in order to prevent them from being tampered with, or persuaded into conveying communications without the walls.

“You look pale, Amelie,” one of the other ladies said as they gathered in a group for a moment before proceeding to their respective apartments, where they were supposed to pass the afternoon in working, reading, and meditation.

“It is the heat,” the countess said. “I have a headache.”

“You look it,” the latter said. “It is not often that you have anything the matter with you. You know we all say that you must have a constitution of iron and the courage of a Roland to be sixteen years here and yet to have no wrinkle on your forehead, no marks of weeping round your eyes.”

The countess smiled sadly.

“I wept the first six months almost without ceasing, and then I told myself that if I would be strong and resist I must weep no more. If a bird in a cage once takes to pining he is sure not to live long. There are few of us here the news of whose death would not give pleasure to those who shut us up, and I for one resolved that I would live in spite of all.”

“Well, you must not get ill now, Amelie. We should miss you terribly in the one hour of the day when we really live, the hour when we walk and talk, and laugh if we can, on the river terrace.

“I don’t think I shall be able to come this evening,” the countess said.

“I shall lie down and keep myself quiet. Tomorrow I hope to be myself again. It is a mere passing indisposition.”

The hours passed slowly as Amelie lay on her couch and wondered over the coming interview. There were so many things which she might hear — that her father was dead; that her family had hopes at last of obtaining her restoration to the world. That it could be a message from her husband she had no hope, for so long as her father lived she was sure that his release would never be granted. As to the child, she scarce gave it a thought. That it had somehow been removed and had escaped the search that had been made for it she was aware; for attempts had been made to obtain from her some clue as to where it would most likely have been taken. She was convinced that it had never been found, for if it had she would have heard of it. It would have been used as a lever to work upon her.

At last the hour when she was accustomed to go into the garden arrived, and as the convent bell struck seven she heard the doors of the other cells open, the sound of feet in the corridor, and then all became still.

In a few minutes a step approached, and one of the sisters entered to inquire why she was not in the garden with the others.

She repeated that her head ached.

“You look pale,” the sister said, “and your hand is hot and feverish. I will send you up some tisane. It is the heat, no doubt. I think that we are going to have thunder.”

In a few minutes a step was again heard approaching, and Jeanne entered with the medicament. As she closed the door the countess started into a sitting position.

“What is it, Jeanne? What is it that you have to say to me?”

“Calm yourself, I pray you, countess,” Jeanne said. “For both our sakes I pray you to hear what I have to say calmly. I expect Sister Felicia will be here directly. When she heard you were unwell she said she would come up and see what you needed. And now, I will begin my message. In the first place I was to hand you this.” And she placed in Amelie’s hand the little necklet and cross.

For a moment the countess looked at them wonderingly, and then there flashed across her memory a sturdy child in its nurse’s arms, and a tall man looking on with a loving smile as she fastened a tiny gold chain round the child’s neck. A low cry burst from her lips as she started to her feet.

“Hush, lady, hush!” Jeanne exclaimed. “This is my message: ‘He whom you have not seen since he was an infant is in Tours, longing above all things to speak to you.'”

“My child! my child!” the countess cried. “Alive and here! My God, I thank thee that thou hast remembered a friendless mother at last. Have you seen him, Jeanne? What is he like? Oh, tell me everything!”

“He is a right proper young gentleman, madam. Straight and comely and tall, with brown waving hair and a bright pleasant face. A son such as any mother might be proud of.”

The countess suddenly threw her arms around Jeanne’s neck and burst into tears.

“You have made me so happy, Jeanne; happy as I never thought to be again.

How can I thank you?”

“The best way at present, madam,” Jeanne said with a smile, “will be by drinking up that tisane, and lying down quietly. Sister Felicia moves about as noiselessly as a cat, and she may pop in at any moment. Do you lie down again, and I will stand a little way off talking. Then if she comes upon us suddenly she will suspect nothing.”

The countess seized the bowl of tisane and drank it off, and then threw herself on the couch.

“Go on, Jeanne, go on. Have pity on my impatience. Think how I am longing to hear of him. Did the message say he was longing to see me? But that is not possible.”

“It is not quite impossible, madam; though it would be dangerous, very dangerous. Still it is not quite impossible.”

“How then could it be done, Jeanne? You know what our life is here. How can I possibly see my boy?”

“What he proposes, madam, is this: that he should some night scale the river wall, and await you on the terrace, and that you should descend from your window by a rope ladder, and so return after seeing him.”

“Oh, yes, that is possible!” the countess exclaimed; “I could knot my bed clothes and slide down. It matters not about getting back again, since we have no ladder.”

“I can manage to bring in two light ropes,” Jeanne said. “It would not do for you to be found in the garden, for it would excite suspicion, and you would never have a chance of doing it again. But it is not an easy thing to climb up a rope ladder with no one to help you, and you know I shall be at the other end of the house.”

“That is nothing,” the countess said. “Had I to climb ten times the height, do you think I should hesitate for a moment when it was to see my son? Oh, Jeanne, how good you are! And when will it be?”

“I will bring in the ropes next time I go out. Mind and place them in your bed. You will know that that night at eleven o’clock your son will be on the terrace awaiting you.

As Jeanne finished speaking she placed her finger on her lips, for she thought she heard a slight noise without. The countess closed her eyes and then lay down on her pillow, while Jeanne stood as if watching her.

The next instant the door opened noiselessly and Sister Felicia entered.

She moved with a noiseless step up to Jeanne.

“Is she asleep?” she whispered.

“Oh no!” Jeanne answered in a louder voice, guessing that the sister would have heard the murmur of voices. “She has only just closed her eyes.”

The countess looked up.

“Ah! is it you, sister? I have taken the tisane Sister Angela sent up, but my hands are burning and my head aches. The heat in chapel was so great I thought I should have fainted.”

“Your hands are indeed burning,” the sister said, convinced, as soon as she touched them, that the countess was really indisposed. “Yes; and your pulse is beating quicker than I can count. Yes, you have a touch of fever. I will mix you a draught and bring it up to you at once. Hark! that is the first peal of thunder; we are going to have a storm. It will clear the air, and do you even more good than my medicine. I will leave you here for tonight; if you are not better tomorrow we will move you into the infirmary.”

The next morning Sister Felicia found her patient much better, though she still seemed languid and weak, and was ordered to remain quietly in her apartment for a day or so, which was just what she desired, for she was so filled with her new born happiness that she feared that if she went about her daily tasks as usual she should not be able to conceal from the sharp eyes of the sisters the joyousness which was brimming over in her, while had she laughed she would have astonished the inmates of the gloomy convent.

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