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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Godmothers
By Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835–1921)
 
THEY were all bidden to the christening, all the godmothers—if by good hap none had been forgotten.  1
  And of course they came. The christening of a L’Aiglenoir Franche du Roy was no mean occasion, under the circumstances, but one to which the family must do honor, if they hastened from the ends of the earth—and beyond.  2
  They did not arrive with the stir befitting L’Aiglenoir Franche du Roys. But that might be because of the inborn gentilesse which taught them the proprieties of the sick-room. The young mother, as she lay in the dim vast chamber of the old castle, hearing the cry of the wind over the cold Atlantic, saw them come in singly, and in groups, and at intervals. Very faint and weak, and with some awe in her soul before the new being she had evoked, perhaps she dropped asleep in the space of time between their coming; for when she opened her startled eyes, another was appearing.  3
  At first Rosomond did not comprehend it. She felt annoyed at the intrusion. She turned her eyes to the place where the bassinet swung under its laces; the pair of candles in the wall sconce behind it making that the sole spot of light in the long room full of shadows, where lay the little morsel of life for which she had so nearly surrendered her own, and toward which her heart swelled with a sense of infinite dearness. “Do not, do not touch him!” she murmured apprehensively to the woman bending there with her purples sweeping about her, and the glitter of her diamonds like dagger-points.  4
  And then the plumed and coroneted woman had disappeared behind a curtain into the recesses of the deep casements, perhaps; and the young countess closed her eyes forgetfully.  5
  “Yes,” she was saying to herself, when with a little flutter her lids opened again, some time afterwards, “that is the old countess who brought the Franche du Roy lands to the L’Aiglenoirs. It is her portrait that hangs high next the oriel in the sea-gallery. I could never satisfy myself, as I walked there in the late afternoons, if it were a shadow of the carved ceiling on her forehead, or a stain that had come out. The stain is there now. She was a king’s favorite.  6
  “Do not touch my little innocent child!” she cried suddenly, rising on one arm. Did her senses deceive her? Did she hear the woman answer, “But it is my child too!”  7
  And a shudder seized her as suddenly: that woman’s blood ran in her child’s veins! Ah, if she knew just where, she would let it out this minute! And then she fell back, laughing at herself.  8
  There were others in the room when her gaze again wandered down its length. Oh, yes, she had seen them all before. Had they stepped from their frames in the long sea-gallery?  9
  The beautiful young being in the white brocade sown with violets, the band of brilliants in her red-gold hair, mother of the count’s father, she who later had rivaled Eugénie in Eugénie’s court,—Eugénie, who had the resources of an empire, and the L’Aiglenoirs had nothing,—yet, ah no, it was empty sound, the scandal that those resplendent toilets were a part of the bribes of senators. She who was a Bourbon D’Archambeau! Nor would Rosomond believe the rumor concerning moneys obtained by the dexterous writing of great officials’ names—forgery, counterfeit, what you will—by that other laughing lovely thing, a wife out of the convent, a mother at sixteen, the last countess, launched upon life without a scruple or a sou, who loved pleasure so passionately that she came to live at last upon chloral and opium, and died dancing.  10
  She had often silently made friends with these captivating young women, when unable to go out, and during her lonely pacing up and down the length of the sea-gallery, with the low roar of the surge in her ears; while her husband, who had brought her down here with a loving fancy that his child might be born in the ancestral stronghold which some of her own millions were restoring to its ancient grandeur, was away on the water, or in the hunt, or perhaps at the races.  11
  She would not think ill of them now: they alone of all the women on the wall had not seemed to think ill of her, to look at her as a parvenu and an interloper; had seemed to have about them something of the spirit of the century, to have breathed air she breathed herself.  12
  It was natural that the last countess, the pretty piquant creature, should have loved splendid gowns;—kept in homespun all the earlier days by her father’s mother, the old marchioness,—the miser whose hands grew yellow counting her gold. Tante Alixe had told Rosomond of it. There she was now,—the old marchioness,—gasping for more air, but just as she was painted in her dusky robes; with the long ivory hands like the talons of a bird of prey,—the talons of a L’Aiglenoir,—mumbling of the revenue she had wrung from her peasants, who starved on black bread to buy of her the privilege of living.  13
  Perhaps it was thought she had that privilege too long herself. She had died suddenly—very suddenly. Her son, the marquis, was a partisan and a man of power: a great deal of gold was needed in the intrigues concerning the two kings.  14
  And here was another who had died suddenly—but in the open air. There was a red line round her slender throat, too dull for the ruby necklace she wore in the portrait in the panel; the tall, fair aristocrat whose long white throat, alas! had felt the swift kiss of the guillotine’s blade. There was not the look of hate and horror in the portrait that was on her face now; only the languor of many pleasures there, the proud and insolent indifference to the pain, the want, the suffering, from which those pleasures had been pressed like wine that left the must.  15
  “The canaille,” she seemed to say,—“they die? so much the less vermin. They suffer? and what of it?”  16
  Her husband had told Rosomond when he first led her down the long sea-gallery, the story of this proud lady who thought the world made only for her class. It had passed the idle hour: Rosomond had not thought of it again. He had told her all their stories,—that of the strangely wrinkled old baroness, with her eyes like sparks of fire in the midst of ashes, once herself blooming and fair to see, who had kept the keys of the king’s hunting-lodge, and provided for his pleasures there. “Well, yes,” the young count had said, “but what will you have? She was no worse than her time. They were infamous times.” He had told her of that blue-eyed waxen woman painted in the Sir Peter Lely,—a beauty who had followed the fortunes of Charles Stuart into France, very like, but who had come into the L’Aiglenoir family later by the church door; of the Vandyke,—the blonde devotee who went over with La Reine Henriette, and came to a madhouse at last; of the Antonio Moro, vanishing in her golden-brown shadows,—an attendant of the English Mary, a confidante of Philip of Spain, who had read her missal at an auto da fé; of the Rubens,—the half-clad woman like an overblown rose, a great red rose with the sun on its velvet and dewy petals;—if face and frame spoke for her, a woman who was only an embodied sin;—of the Holbein,—a creature whose appetites had devoured her and left themselves only on the canvas; of the possible Titian—“See the gold of her hair,” said the count. “It was dyed. But all the same, Titian—it must have been Titian—knew how to hide the sun in every strand. What a lustre of skin! What a bloom on the cheek—it never blushed with shame. What a luscious lip—it knew forbidden kisses, it denounced a brother to the Ten. What a glory in the eye—yet if all traditions are true, that eye saw a lover disappear as the gondola touched the deep water that tells no tales. See the hand: what contour, what fineness, what delicacy—and the life in it! But it knew how to play with a poniard whose tip was touched with poison. She did her little best to betray Venice for a price; and she had to leave with the French army, of course.”  17
  “I should think you would be glad it is all only tradition,” Rosomond had said.  18
  “I don’t know. You see the king gave her a duchy, and she brought it into the family. The title lapsed, to be sure; and the revenues went long ago in gaming debts. Do you note that damsel in the white satin,—the Geraart Terburg? Her face is like a live pearl. Well, she was the stake once in some high play.”  19
  “That would have been dreadful if it were true.”  20
  “As you please,” said the count with a shrug.  21
  “And were there no good women, no honorable men?”  22
  “Oh, but plenty! But, ma chérie, happiness has no history, virtue has few adventures. Their portraits fade out on the wall as they themselves do in the line. It is the big wills, the big passions, that are memorable—that drown out those others, the weak, that have made the L’Aiglenoirs what they are. Those imbeciles, they are like René’s father the day of his burial, ‘as if he had never existed.’” And he went on with his narrative.  23
  “But it is a gallery! If we had it at home, and—pardon—reckoned its commercial value—”  24
  “Alas! The pictures are no more certified than the traditions! And then, one does not willingly part with one’s people. Yet—if that were indeed a Titian—”  25
  “You would not have gone over to America to marry me.”  26
  “I should not perhaps have gone over to America to marry the heiress of the New World, repeating the adventures of the knights of long ago, but in modern dress. I should have had no need. But I would have married you, Rosomond, had I met you on the dark side of the moon, or else have flung myself headlong into space!”  27
  “You forget the attraction of gravitation.”  28
  “Your attraction is the greater.”  29
  “Now I do not believe you. The language of hyperbole is not the language of truth.”  30
  “Pleasantry aside, you must always believe I speak truth, my wife, when I say that whatever led me in the beginning, it is love that overcame me in the end. I could not perhaps have married,—I who love pleasure too,—if you had not been the daughter of Dives. For we were beggared—we poor L’Aiglenoir Franche du Roys. But the thing being made possible, I simply entered heaven, Rosomond!”  31
  “And I,” said Rosomond, as she stood in the deep window-place, looking up at him a moment, and back again swiftly to the sea.  32
  “And if it were a title against a fortune, as Newport said, and as the Faubourg held a matter of course—although Heaven knows a title means nothing now, and will not till the King—the good God have his Majesty in keeping!—is at home again—”  33
  “Oh, let us forget all that, fortune or title!” Rosomond had said.  34
  “No, no. For if the fortune arrive to repair the fortunes of the house of L’Aiglenoir, why not? It is your house, Rosomond. It is the house of your child. And we will make a new house of it. The L’Aiglenoir of the twentieth century shall again be the prime minister of the King of France. The new blood, the new gold, shall make new fortunes, shall bring back the old force and will and power; and we will leave these dusty memories behind, and ask no one of them to the christening!”  35
  “Perhaps so,” Rosomond had said, half under her breath. “But you have been a self-indulgent, pleasure-loving people,” she added presently. “And with rank, with wealth, with opportunity—it does not tend to bring back the old brute strength.”  36
  “Well, then,” the count lightly answered her, “let us take some of the pleasure! See, how purple is the water beyond the white lip on the reefs. We will go try the outer sea, and drift an hour or two in the soft wind. And I will tell you how beautiful you are, ma belle Américaine, and you shall tell me what a sailor I am. It is not the sailing of the old sea-robber who came down here to assault the castle in the days of that grandmother of mine twenty times removed, in the days of La Dame Blanche, to take her with her belongings and marry her by storm—but it is pleasanter, my sweet.”  37
 
  That had been in the bright spring months. Now autumn winds swept the Atlantic, and cried in the tops of the ragged pines below the castle’s cliff. Many a day had Rosomond sat there, listening for the sea measures, and fancying the beat of the surf was the washing of the wave under the keel that carried Tristan and Isolde, a thousand years ago and more, on the waters just beyond; heard the very music of Isolde’s wild lament; watched for the white sail across the reef as if the sick knight lay in the court-yard within under the linden-tree, in all the pathos of song and beauty and tragic fate; felt herself taken into a world of romance, where the murmuring of the breeze in the bough was the murmur of the skirts of the great forest of Broceliande.  38
  But this had nothing to do with romance now. She lay in bed, with her little child near at hand,—the attendants just without,—in the tower chamber where for generations the L’Aiglenoirs had been born.  39
  Through the deep windows she saw the swift-flying moon touch the clouds sweeping in the wind, and light the swale on the dark and lifted sea beyond; look in and now and again silver the faces of the paladins and maidens in the pale blue-green forest of the old tapestry, that slightly rippled and rose and fell, as if with a consciousness of the windy gust that sung outside the tower. It was that old paladin with the truncheon—a paladin of Charlemagne’s—from whom the Franche du Roys counted. It was the châtelaine with the flagon that gave him his quietus.  40
  What did it all mean, though, at this moment? With the heavy swaying of the tapestry, had these people by any chance left their silken shroud and come out into the room to look at the child?  41
  Not the twelve white-faced nuns; not the featureless young squires and dames: but that old châtelaine of whose needle-wrought semblance she had always been half afraid,—who carried the golden flagon and gave the knight to drink, perhaps for sleep, perhaps for death. Yes, that was she; but she had left her majesty in the hangings, with her veil and horned headpiece, her trailing samite and cloth of gold of cramoisie. Here, with her thin gray tattered locks, pallid, pinched, and shrunken, white as some reptile blanched beneath a stone, what was she to be afraid of now? But this other—“Once the place was mine, mine and my love’s!” she was exclaiming. “Till the sea darkened with their gilded prows, the sky darkened with their bitter arrows!” Ah, yes, how many hundreds of years ago it was since she defended the castle after a lance-head laid her lord low; and the sea-rover had scaled the heights and taken her, loathing and hating him, to wife. And from them had been born the line of the L’Aiglenoirs!  42
  And what was she doing here? What were they all doing here, these women? What right had they in her room? Why were they looking with such ardent and eager eyes, murmuring among themselves, hurrying past one another toward the child?  43
  “Give way!” was La Dame Blanche exclaiming. “I was the first.”  44
  “Après moi,” said the laughing lady, flittering along in her butterfly gauzes, the diamonds in her tiara flashing out and reluming again. “I am the last.”  45
  “If so false a thing ever existed at all,” said the woman with the mass-book,—or was it a book of jests?—the Flemish woman who sold her daughter for a tulip.  46
  “I give you my word I existed!” was the gay reply.  47
  “Under your own signature?” asked the pretty patched and powdered Watteau.  48
  “Never mind whose signature.”  49
  “Worthless,” murmured a lady, lifting her black lace mask from features sharp as a death’s-head, and of a tint as wan as the tints of a Boucher design,—“worthless in any event.”  50
  “Ah, madame, from you to me? I was but your natural consequence, you Voltairiennes, as you were all born on the night of St. Bartholomew!”  51
  “Its tocsin still rings in the air! I am condemned ever to hear the boom of the bell,” complained the dark person with the rosary.  52
  And then the laughing lady twitched her beads; and there fell out from her sleeve the perfumed fan whose breath was fever, the gloves whose palms were deadly, brought with her Medicean mistress from Italy.  53
  “A truce!” cried the gay lady. “The birth of an heir to the L’Aiglenoir Franche du Roys, with wealth to restore the ancient splendor, is an event for due ceremony and precedence. I am the child’s grandmother, his very next of kin among us. And you know the rights of the grandmother in France.”  54
  “They are our rights!” came a shrill multitudinous murmur. “We all are grandmothers!”  55
  “Are we all here?” came a hollow whisper from the châtelaine, the candlelight flickering in her flagon.  56
  “All the fairy godmothers?” cried the gay lady.  57
  “No, no,” said La Dame Blanche: “there is one who has been forgotten.”  58
  “The wicked fairy,” said the gay lady. “The rest of us are of such a virtue. He will value us like his other objets de vertu.”  59
 
  A COLD shiver coursed over Rosomond, but her eyes burned with the intensity of her gaze. She understood it now. He was the child of their blood. That was why they were here, why they intruded themselves into her room. They had a right. It had been their own room. For how many generations had the L’Aiglenoirs been born in this room! She had never thought of this when she sailed so gayly out of harbor, a bride with her bridegroom, wearing his title, protected by his arm, so proud, so glad, so happy that she had the wealth he needed,—all that so trifling beside the fact that they loved each other. She had never dreamed of the little child to come, who would be dearer than her life to her, and in whose veins must run a black drop of the blood of all these creatures.  60
  And now—oh, was there no remedy? Was there nothing to counteract it, nothing to dissipate that black drop, to make it colorless, powerless, harmless, a thing of air? Were there no sweet, good people among all those dead and gone women?  61
  Ah, yes, indeed, there they were! Far off, by the curtain of the doorway, huddled together like a flock of frightened doves: gentle ladies, quiet, timid, humble before heaven; ladies of placid lives, no opportunities, small emotions, narrow routine; praying by form, acting by precedent, without individuality; whose goodness was negative, whose doings were paltry; their poor drab beings swamped and drowned and extinguished in the purples and scarlets of these women of great passions, of scope, of daring and deed and electric force, mates of men of force, whose position had called crime to its aid, whose very crimes had enlarged them, whose sins were things of power, strengthening their personality if but for evil, transmitting their potentiality—oh, no, these gentle ladies signified nothing here!  62
  A cold dew bathed Rosomond and beaded her brow. But were the L’Aiglenoirs and their order all there were? Where were her own people? Had they no right in the child? Could they not cross the seas? Was there no requiting strength among them? None in the mother of her father,—king of railroads and mines and vast southwestern territory,—that stern, repressed woman, who had spared and starved and saved to start her son in life? “Come!” cried Rosomond. “Come, my own people! Oh, I need you now, I and my child!”  63
  But among all these splendid dames of quality, accustomed to wide outlook on the world, and a part of the events of nations, what had these village people to do,—these with their petty concerns, the hatching of chickens, the counting of eggs, the quilting of stitches; these perhaps more prosperous, with interests never going outside the burgh, whose virtues were passive, whose highest dream was of a heaven like their own parlors, a God in their own image: whose lives were eventless, whose memories were pallid, laid aside in the sweep of the great drama and without a part; whose slighter nature was swollen, and whose larger nature was shriveled from disuse? This colonial dame,—her father the distilled essence of old Madeira and oily Jamaica, her heart in her lace, her china, and her sweetmeat closet, her scrofulous and scorbutic son lixiviated by indulgence,—had she much counteracting force to give? Or had this one, in whom quarreled forever the mingled blood of persecuted Quaker and persecuting Puritan? Or this pale wife of the settler, haunted by fear of the Indian, the apparitions of the forest, and the terrors of her faith; or this other, the red-cloaked matron, fighting fire with fire, the familiar of witches? Was there help to be hoped for from this bland Pilgrim woman, who, through force of circumstances, was married with her nursling in her arms while her husband was but three months dead? And did this downcast-eyed, white-kerchiefed mistress, whose steadfastness her hardness countervailed,—daughter of the Mayflower, the new sea-rover coming out of the East, whose Norse fathers had come out of the East before,—do more than carry her back to the old Danes and Vikings ambushed in their creeks? Her people, indeed! Returning on the source—oh, it was all one and the same! It was all misery!  64
  What gifts were these grandmothers going to give the child then? she asked. Pride and lust and cruelty, mocking impiety and falsehood, bigotry that belied heaven as bitterly as unbelief, vanity and selfishness and hate, theft and avarice and murder? In the wild and wicked current of their blood the tide was hopelessly against him—his bones would be poured out like water! Her pulse bounded, her brain was on fire.—Oh, no, no, the little child—the new-born—some one must come—some one must help—some one!  65
  Some one was coming. There was a stir without; the wind was singing round the buttress as if it brought on its wings the cry of the bright sea, the murmur of the wide wood; the moonlight streamed in full and free.  66
  “It is she,” said La Dame Blanche.  67
  “The wicked fairy—the unbidden godmother,” said the gay lady with a warning gesture.  68
  “The one whom civilization has forgotten,” said the Voltairienne, readjusting her mask, “and whom culture has ignored.”  69
  How sweet were the thunders of the sea sifted through distance, the whispers of the wave creaming up the shingle, that crept into the room like the supporting harmony of the wind’s song! There was a rustle as if of all the leaves of the forest, a quiver of reeds over blue water reflecting blue heaven, a sighing of long grass above the nests of wild bees in the sunshine. And who was this swift and supple creature with her free and fearless foot, large-limbed and lofty as Thusnelda, clad in her white wolfskin, with the cloud of her yellow hair fallen about her, carrying her green bough, strong, calm, sure, but with no smile upon her radiant face?  70
  “The original savage,” whispered the gay lady, as sovereign and serene the unbidden godmother moved up the room; and the others seemed to dissolve before her coming—to waver away and to vanish.  71
  She parted the hangings of the bassinet, and rested her hand upon the sleeper of his first sleep, bending and gazing long.  72
  “Waken,” she said then, as she lifted and laid him at her breast. “Drink of thy first mother’s life, a balsam for every ill; mother’s milk that shall unpoison thy blood, and bring the thick black drops to naught. Child of the weather and all out-doors, latest child of mine, draw from me will and might and the love of the undefiled, acquaintance with the rune that shall destroy the venom that taints you, shall blast the wrong done you! Draw large, free draughts! Return to me, thou man-child! I give thee the strength of my forest, my rivers, my sea, my sunshine, my starshine, my own right arm, my heart! I cleanse thee. The slime of the long years shall not cling to thee. I start thee afresh, new-born. By night in my star-hung tent the gods shall visit thee, by day thou shalt walk in the way of becoming a god thyself. I give thee scorn for the ignoble, trust in thy fellow, dependence on thine own lusty sinew and unconquerable will,—familiar friend of hardship and content, spare and pure and strong,—joy in the earth, the sun, the wind, faith in the unseen. This is thy birthright. Whatever else the years may bring, see that thou do it no wrong. I, the unpolluted, strong wild strain in thy blood, the vital savage, save thee from thyself. Sleep now, sweet hope. The winds sing to thee, the waves lull thee, the stars affright thee not! Dear son of thy mother, sleep.”  73
  And then a shiver ran through the long, moon-lighted tapestry, as the gust rose and fell, and the sea sighed up the reef, and there was only silence and slumber in the room.  74
  But Rosomond’s women, when they came again, wondered and were wise concerning a green bough that lay across the child.  75
 
 
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