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After Long Years and Other Stories by  Agnes M. Dunne

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FROM ROYAL PALACE TO LOWLY HUT

THE SUBURBS

[205] During those unhappy times when the Empire of France was overthrown and a number of the richest people were plunged into the deepest misery, a very wealthy family, named Berlow, lived in a palace in Paris.

Count Berlow was a high-minded, honorable man, and his wife was good and charitable. Their two children, Albert and Marguerite, were the exact counterpart of their parents.

Just as those revolutionary times broke forth, Count Berlow, with his family, moved from Paris to his mansion in the suburbs. Here he lived quietly, surrounded by orchards of fruitful trees, free from the turmoil of the noisy city. His family rejoiced at having him constantly in their midst and he was glad at the opportunity of being the instructor of his children, particularly in music.

One gloomy winter evening, the family was gathered in the brilliantly lighted music room. Count Berlow had composed a pretty little poem, and had fitted it to music. Albert had with difficulty mastered the playing of it, but Marguerite could sing the song remarkably well. The children had practised this piece faithfully and diligently and purposed to surprise their mother by singing and playing it that very evening. After the Count and Countess had sung several operatic selections, the father turned to his children, saying: "Let us hear what you can do." Albert seated himself at the piano and played, while Marguerite modestly sang in a sweet tone.

The Countess was delighted over this, their first song. She embraced both the children affectionately, and praised them for their efforts and the pleasure which they had afforded her.

Suddenly, the door was thrust open, and armed soldiers crowded into the room. The leader presented an order in which the Count was declared a friend of the King and an enemy of freedom and equality, and in consequence he was to be conducted to prison. Although the Countess, weeping and lamenting, threw her arms about her husband's neck to hold and guard him, and his children clung to his knees, the soldiers rudely tore him from their embrace. The cries of the mother and children were heart-rending.


[Illustration]

"Suddenly, the door was thrust open, and armed soldiers crowded into the room."

The unhappy wife did everything in her power to save her dear husband. She hastened to the city and appeared before the magistrate, to prove [207] the Count's innocence. She called upon all her neighbors to bear testimony to her husband's quiet, retiring life, and to the fact that he had taken no share in the affairs of his country, and had talked with no one concerning them. But everything was in vain, and she was informed that in a few days her husband would be sentenced to death.

After an absence of several days, the Countess returned to her country seat and found her home occupied by soldiers, who had ransacked it and reduced it to a common tavern to which admittance was denied her. Her two children were nowhere to be found, and all her servants had been driven away. It was late at night, and she knew not what to do next.

As she turned, she met Richard, her old, true and faithful servant, who said to her: "My dear, good Countess Berlow, you, too, stand in danger of suspicion this very minute, for you have been heard to speak of the injustice and cruelty of the government. There is no escape for you, except by secret flight. You cannot save your husband, and your presence here will only bring trouble upon your own head. Your children are both in one of the out-houses with my wife. Follow me there. My brother, John, the old fisherman, has been notified, and I will take you to him to-night. He will conduct you and your children across the [208] river to safety. In this way you will at least save your lives."

She entered Richard's house, but there a new trouble awaited her, for Marguerite had become suddenly ill from the fright and the shock, and lay unconscious, sick with a high fever. The Countess wished to nurse her child back to health, but the doctor would not hear of it, and advised her immediate flight. Richard and his good wife promised to care for the sick child, as if it were their own.

Countess Berlow knelt beside the bedside of her beloved daughter, and said: "If I must bow to this decree, I leave her in your care, my good people, and ask God in His mercy to watch over her and restore her to me in His good time." She paused for a moment, then rose quickly from her knees, kissed her unconscious child, took her son by the hand, and trembling and swaying, hastened out of the house, without one backward look.

THE RETREAT

[209] Richard now conducted the Countess and her son to John, the fisherman, who quickly rowed them over the river to safety. As there was no time to rest, with the help of a guide, the fisherman's friend, she hastened on with her son to find the hut which Richard had suggested.

After days and weeks of journeying hither and thither, over hills and through valleys, they found that their strength was almost exhausted. At last they came to a little low hut in a thickly wooded country. The guide pointed to it with his staff, saying: "That is the hut; there live the old shepherd and his wife who will harbor you."

Countess Berlow sighed, and followed the narrow path to the hut.

The old shepherd, who had been expecting her, came forward with a pleasant smile and welcoming, outstretched hands. To show his great respect for her, he had dressed himself in a gray suit. Around his neck he had tied a red handkerchief, and he wore a nice, green hat with a little bent feather at its side.

"Greetings to you, noble lady," said he. "I consider it a great honor to protect you and your [210] son. This is my wife, and between us we will do all in our power to make you feel contented."

So saying, he turned to his wife, who repeated his greetings, and invited all to partake of her simple meal, which consisted of bread and milk and a few apples.

The good shepherdess then conducted the Countess to a room which opened on an adjoining room. These two rooms were to serve as bedrooms. The larger one was meagerly furnished, and its only window looked out upon the forest and two high mountain tops.

Countess Berlow was thankful for having been guided to this humble retreat. She cared for her own rooms daily and spent the remaining time in knitting, sewing or reading. But her greatest anxiety was to find amusement for her son, Albert. She undertook to continue his instruction, but she was at a loss for books.

One morning, as she sat musing over her wants, she was aroused from her reverie by the ringing of the near-by church bell. The good, old shepherdess came running into the room saying that the clergyman from over the hill would hold services in the chapel that day. Countess Berlow, with her son, hastened at once to attend.

The clergyman delivered a short sermon, every word of which touched the hearts of his earnest listeners. After the services, the Countess sought the clergyman and engaged him in conversation. [211] She found him to be a thoughtful, devout, kind-hearted old man. He showed great interest in Albert. He promised to supply the much needed books for his use, and offered to give the boy two hours' instruction each day, provided Albert would take the trouble to journey over the hills to his house.

Albert promised to come, overjoyed at the prospect of continuing his studies under such an able teacher. He could scarcely wait each day for the hour when, with his books under his arm, he would set out over the hills, whistling lively tunes and keeping step to his music.

On rainy days, when the roads were heavy and ofttimes dangerous, he was obliged to forego his visits. His mother would then suggest some recreation for him, for she well knew that all work and no play would tend to make him dull.

In this locality, large numbers of canary birds were raised and sold and sent far and wide to other countries. Even the old shepherd had many of these birds. Albert begged his mother to purchase one of them for him. "Marguerite always had one," said he, "and I would dearly love to own one, too. It would remind us of her and our own dear home."

His mother agreed, and Albert chose a bird that closely resembled the one belonging to his sister. The bird with its beautiful yellow plumage, its clear, brilliant, coal-black eyes, afforded [212] Albert much pleasure. Soon the bird became tame, flew upon Albert's outstretched finger and ate seeds from his lips.


[Illustration]

"Soon the bird became tame and flew upon Albert's outstretched finger."

Whenever Albert wrote, the bird would alight on his penholder and peck his fingers. Though he enjoyed the bird's presence and tricks, yet he was obliged at times to cage him, in order to carry on his work undisturbed. Later, when the bird began to sing, Albert could not praise it enough.

"You must teach it to whistle nice songs," said the old shepherd one day.

Albert thought the old man was joking. He did not yet know that one can teach a bird to imitate. The old man then brought out a flute and presented it to him.

"Oh, what a fine flute! How glad I am to own one," said Albert.

The old shepherd took the flute, played a waltz upon it, and showed Albert how to use the stops. Albert was pleased with the light, clear tones of the flute, and as he had talent for music and had a good ear, he soon mastered the difficulties of the instrument.

Often he played tirelessly for the bird and always a song which his father had taught him. After striving for hours and days and weeks to teach the bird, lo! his wonderful patience was rewarded. The bird began to sing the song, and sang it through without a mistake.

Albert leaped with joy and thanks. He praised [213] the bird, over and over again, and rewarded it with lettuce, apple and hemp seed. The little flute and the little bird helped Albert and his mother to while away many an hour.

As the months rolled along, the sorrows of the Countess still lay heavily on her heart. Many a night she spent in tears and sleeplessness, and many a day was sad and dreary. She tried very hard to cloak her woe, and hide it from her son. In her unselfishness, she choked back her tears and grief, filled each day with work, and gave strict attention to her son's comfort, instruction and diversions. She always had a pleasant word and smile for the old shepherd and his wife, whose life, though lonely, was spent in the satisfaction of right living and lending a helping hand. The joy that comes from doing one's best is the only lasting joy, for every other pleasure fades and passes away.

Countess Berlow tried in every way to get news of the Count, but she had not been very successful, although some news was printed in the daily papers. The thoughtful old clergyman sent her a copy of the news, once each week, as he did not receive it any oftener.

One night Albert returned carrying the paper, and said: "The good clergyman did not have time to read it through, but he noticed from the head lines, that the paper contains much good news."

[214] The Countess took it and read anxiously. Finding the news somewhat encouraging, she built hopes that soon she might return to her much loved home; but, alas, in the very last column of the paper, she read that many noblemen were to be sentenced to death for their loyalty to the king. In the list, she found the name of her worthy husband, Count Berlow. She reeled as if struck by a thunder-bolt, the paper fell from her hands and she sank in a swoon.

A few minutes passed before the good shepherdess came in response to Albert's cry, and brought the Countess back to consciousness. She had to be carried to her bed, and it seemed as if she would never recover. Poor Albert, who rarely left her bedside for a moment, began to fail and fade day by day.

The old shepherd often said, shaking his head at the same time: "The coming fall will surely scatter its leaves upon the grave of the Countess, and her poor son will doubtless never see the spring."

THE PRISON

[215] The faithful old Richard had waited on that memorable day of the flight for the return of his brother John, the fisherman. He was elated when he heard of the safety of the Countess. Richard's greatest trouble now was how to save his master, the good Count Berlow. He considered it very unjust and cruel that an honest and right-living citizen should be sentenced to death for loyalty to his king.

On the following morning, Richard hurried to the city where his son, Robert, served in the National Guard. With help he hoped to gain a meeting with this good-natured, intelligent boy, who from time to time acted as sentinel before the prison. He would try to secure his son's aid in releasing the Count, so unjustly imprisoned. At last the opportunity presented itself, and father and son had a hasty talk over the situation. Robert found no chance, however, and gave up hope of saving the Count.

At last the day arrived when the Count's sentence was to be carried out. Sleepless and sad, with his head resting on his hands, the Count sat in his lonely cell. The warden had not considered [216] it worth while to bring him a light, and heavy darkness enveloped him. He thought of his wife and his children. Not for himself did he suffer so much, but for those who were so dear to him. He knew not where they were, and he was greatly troubled about their condition.

While the noble Count sat lost in these thoughts, a loud shouting arose in the corridors. Soldiers ran here and there, crying: "Save yourselves, if you can. Fire! Fire!" This reached the Count's ears. All at once the door of his cell was thrown wide open. Thick volumes of smoke and dust poured in and dreadful flashes of light illumined his dark cell. A young soldier stood before him, and cried: "Save yourself!"

Through the carelessness of a drunken servant, a fire had started in the building. The soldiers had torn off their coats and weapons and had hurried to put it out. Robert had seized the first opportunity that afforded itself, had taken the clothing and weapons of a soldier, and had hastened to the Count with them, saying to himself: "The only chance to save him is to dress him as a soldier."

"Hurry, put on these clothes," said Robert. He helped the Count pull on the coat, placed the hat on his head, buckled on his knapsack, and gave him a musket. The Count's face had not been shaved during his imprisonment, so that this gave [217] him the wild appearance which all soldiers had at that time.

"Now," said Robert, "hasten down the steps and out of the front door. With this outfit, I trust you will easily get through the crowd unnoticed. Then go directly to John, the fisherman, and there you will meet my father."

Count Berlow knew exactly how to act his part. Earnestly, as if he had some urgent business to transact, he hurried down the steps and shouted in haughty tones to the men who were carrying buckets, "Aside, aside!" At last he reached the street without being detected. With quick strides and fast-beating heart, he made his way to the city gate and continued on, as Robert had taken care to give him the pass-word.

At midnight, he reached the fisherman's hut. He knocked at the window. The fisherman came to the door, but stepped back frightened at seeing a soldier who might wish to arrest him or his brother. He based his fears on the fact that they had both made many enemies on account of their fidelity to the Berlow family. When John recognized the Count, he raised his hands and exclaimed, "Oh, it's you, Count Berlow; how happy I am to be able to help you!" Richard, who had waited and watched there for the last ten nights, rushed into the room and shouted: "Oh, my master!" and both embraced and wept.

[218] The first question which the Count asked was for his wife and children. Richard quickly related the details of their flight and the illness of Marguerite, who had now recovered and was sleeping in the adjoining room. The noise, however, had awakened her, and recognizing her father's voice, she rushed into the room. With great joy she hurried into his outstretched arms. He kissed her rosy cheeks and looked at her long and tenderly.

The Count decided to continue his flight that very night from the land which once had been to him a paradise but was now only a murderers' den. On the same boat that had safely carried his wife and son, he now took passage. The old fisherman led the way and Richard followed last. The night was clear and the heavens bright with stars. Suddenly they heard sounds of shooting, and voices shouting: "Halt! Halt!—Halt, halt!—You are deserters!"


[Illustration]

"On the same boat that had safely carried his wife and son he now took passage."

It so happened that when the fire in the prison had been extinguished, the soldiers had carefully searched each cell, to find if anyone had escaped. To their great astonishment, they found the cell of Count Berlow empty. The soldier who had lost his uniform cried loudly with rage: "He has flown with my clothing and my weapons. Up and follow him!" The pursuers soon found a clue to the Count's route.

The poor Count and Richard were almost stupe- [220] fied when they heard the distant shouting, but they seized the oars all the more firmly and rowed with every muscle strained to the utmost. Soon the soldiers reached the shore and began to fire upon the occupants of the boat. Marguerite crept under the seat, while the men tried to dodge the bullets. One bullet pierced the Count's hat, two pierced Richard's oar. The little boat, which was scarcely an inch above the water, rocked and rolled and almost capsized, but the occupants escaped without injury and finally reached the opposite shore in safety.

Count Berlow was thankful for his escape, and so were Richard and Marguerite. They seated themselves on an overturned tree trunk, to recover a little strength. When they had rested a little, the Count quickly threw off his uniform and donned some old clothes belonging to Richard. With a staff in his hand and a bundle on his back, Richard now led the way, while the Count and Marguerite followed. In order to allay all suspicion, Richard took a roundabout course through the thickly-wooded country.

THE PURCHASE

[221] Count Barlow's greatest desire was to see his wife and son. "I shall not have a restful moment," said he to Richard, "until I shall have found them. You tell me they are safe in a shepherd's lowly hut, but how shall we reach them? My daughter cannot go on foot, and I have not the means to ride there."

Then Richard drew out of his bundle a bag of gold. "You are not as poor as you think, my noble master," said he. "This money is all yours." Count Berlow stared first at the gold and then at his faithful servant.

"You see," said Richard, "while you were rich, you paid me well and presented me with large gifts of money. Many people, too, were generously aided by you. During the time you were imprisoned, I set out to gather in as much money from these people as I could possibly move them to give you. 'Tis true we often find people who never feel grateful for any good they receive, but I must confess that these grateful souls not only returned all you ever gave them, but out of love and deep thankfulness added much more thereto."

[222] Count Berlow counted the money. "It is a very, very large amount," said he, and raised his eyes in thanks to heaven. "But how long can even this last us?"

"We will economize," said Richard, "in every possible way, but let me first of all purchase a horse and wagon." This was soon accomplished. The wagon was provided with a canvas covering, which served to shield the occupants from view, and also to protect them from the sun and rain.

They rode for days and days, and the way was long and dreary. Owing to the rough handling which the Count had received in the prison, the terror which his death sentence had caused him, the sorrow and fear of his flight, and the weariness of the journey, he soon became very much weakened and was forced to stop at a little village and rest for a while.

Richard hired a few rooms and bought the food. As he was well trained in all household duties, he took upon himself the care of their temporary home. Marguerite helped, as best she could, and from morning till night performed each task willingly, always wearing a sunny smile.

Count Berlow was confined to his bed for many weeks, and it was a long time before he could sit up, even for a little while. Marguerite cared for her father, read to him, cheered him, and thus made the time pass pleasantly. Her father re- [223] turned his thanks with every evidence of love and contentment.

Marguerite's birthday was now at hand. When she awoke one morning, she found the window-sills filled with potted geraniums, her favorite flowers, and a beautiful canary bird hanging above them in a pretty golden cage. The bird exactly resembled the one which she had had at home. She thanked her father in the tenderest tones for his selection.

"Take these simple gifts, my child, for at present I can give you no more."

Richard now served dinner and all seemed once more to be bright and happy. When the meal was ended, the Count drank to the health of his daughter and his absent wife and son. "I wonder, my child," said he to Marguerite, "where your mother and brother are this day, and how they are celebrating your birthday? What has befallen them? I always had a happy heart; but now I often have many troubled hours. I fear—I fear."

Marguerite threw her arms about her father's neck and tried to reassure him. "Be comforted, dear father," said she. "We shall be brought together again, for surely God cares for us."

"Yes, that is true," he said, and dried his eyes.

All was silent. It was a deep, solemn, soul-stirring moment.

[224] All at once the canary bird began to sing a song—the song which father and daughter recognized at once as the one which the Count had composed and taught his children. No one else had ever heard it or played it.

Marguerite clapped her hands and shouted: "What can this mean! That is the first piece that you taught us, dear father." All gazed at the bird in astonishment. The bird repeated the song, twice, thrice. "It is our song. No note is missing."

"This is truly wonderful," said the Count. "Certainly no one could have taught that song to the bird but my boy Albert; but how? I do not know. Now, Richard, where did you get this bird?"

Richard then related how he had purchased the canary on the preceding night from a bird fancier in the village.

"Hasten to the village and possibly he may be able to tell you more about the bird."

Richard ran to the village, and was gone what seemed an interminable time. At last he returned with the information that the fancier had bought the bird from a little boy who lived with his mother, many miles beyond, and who had trained this little bird to sing and whistle. The fancier described the boy and mother so well that all were unanimous in their decision that this was the boy and mother for whom they were seeking.

REUNITED

[225] PREPARATIONS were now made for a hasty departure, for the Count seemed suddenly stronger. Richard packed their belongings and placed them in the wagon. The bird was hung from a hook fastened in the top of the vehicle. Everything was soon in readiness.

On the following morning they started off. The Count and Marguerite were regaled on the journey by the sweet song of the canary. It cheered them and seemed to make the time pass all the more quickly. After a journey of twenty miles, they reached the village, at sunset.

They repaired at once to the clergyman's house, where they learned that the Countess and Albert Berlow lived in the shepherd's lowly hut, some miles distant. "The Countess holds her husband as dead," said the clergyman, "and no joy can now penetrate her heart. Her health has failed and it seems as if she would not last very long."

Count Berlow asked how she could have received such incorrect news. The clergyman then brought out a package of newspapers, searched for one sheet, and laid it before the Count. He read that, on such a day, and at such an hour, [226] Count Berlow, with twenty others, had been hung. "Strange it is," said the Count, "either they forgot to cross my name from the list, or else they did not wish to, in the hope that in that way they would not be answerable for my escape."

It pained the Count sorely that this false news had brought much suffering to the Countess, for death seemed almost to have enrolled her, too. The clergyman advised them to proceed slowly and cautiously, lest the joyful news of the Count's return should be too great a shock to her.

Intending to follow the good clergyman's advice, they continued their journey. Soon they reached the summit of a wooded hill, and from the distance they discerned the low hut with its flat, thatch-covered roof and smoking chimney. Richard then went hurriedly ahead.

Countess Berlow, dressed in black, sat knitting at the fireside, the light of which illuminated the room, which had been slowly filling with the shadows of the approaching twilight. Albert sat at her side, reading from her favorite volume. As she saw her faithful servant enter, she uttered a loud cry and her work fell from her hands. She hastened toward him, and with a thousand exclamations of joy and pain, she greeted him heartily, as if he were her dear father. Albert, too, was deeply affected.

Countess Berlow then pointed to a chair which Albert had drawn close to the fire, and said: "My [227] good, true friend, be seated. So we see each, other again. Over the death of my dear husband let us draw a veil. The memory of it is too painful for me. But tell me, how is my daughter? Did she die, as the doctor said she might?"

Richard then explained that the doctor had diagnosed the case as more serious than it really was, in order at that time to hurry the mother's flight; and that Marguerite had very shortly after recovered and had remained well ever since. The Countess was greatly pleased with this report, and her eyes gleamed with joy.

"But," said she earnestly, and with a clouded brow, "why did you not bring her with you? Why did you not tear her from the unhappy fatherland where no hour of her life could be safe? How could you leave without her—you hard, cruel man? Why did you not—" she could say no more, for the door opened, and Marguerite rushed to her mother and embraced and kissed her as if nothing could ever again tear them asunder. Albert joined them and gladder tears were never shed than those which the Countess wept in her exceeding happiness.

Alas, the joy soon melted into yearning. "Oh, that my dear, true husband still lived," said the Countess, as she looked to heaven, "for then my measure of joy would be full. Now, my dear children, you are poor and fatherless. The sight of you fills the heart of your oppressed mother [228] with pain. For what can I, a poor, lonely widow, do for you?"

Then Richard interrupted the conversation with the glad news of the Count's rescue. The Countess proved herself more self-controlled than Richard had anticipated, for the great joy of having seen her true servant, the greater joy of again clasping her daughter in her arms was for this woman the preparation for the greatest of joys—the joy of again seeing the husband whom she had mourned as dead.

The Count had long stood, with palpitating heart, waiting before the door of the hut, where each word had fallen distinctly on his ear.

Richard's last words had scarcely been uttered when the Countess cried: "He lives; he has been saved from the hands of his oppressors." The Count then opened the door, and overcome with emotion, fell at the feet of the Countess.

Timid and fearful, as if she half doubted that he really lived, she gazed at him long and steadily as the light of the fire irradiated his face. She could scarcely express her rapture. Then after a long pause she said: "Oh, the joy of again seeing my loved ones for whom I have wept so long!"

Father and mother, son and daughter, and faithful servant spent a peaceful, joyous evening in the little, lowly hut. The old shepherd and his [229] good wife shared in the contentment which filled their little home to overflowing.

On the following morning, there was brought into this lowly hut another guest who had rendered such helpful service in the speedy reuniting of the separated family—the little canary bird.

Albert was delighted to see his bird again, for during his mother's illness he had found it impossible to care properly for it, and had reluctantly disposed of it at the fancier's in a distant village.

Count Berlow then related at length the circumstances which had brought the bird into his possession and how it had helped to give him the needed hope and strength to continue the journey which had ended so successfully in their reunion.

Albert joined in the conversation, and said, "Wasn't it a happy thought to teach the bird that particular song, when I knew so many songs? But then, you see, it was the song nearest and dearest to my heart. It was my father's song. Little did I think, when I had to part with my pet, that it would be taken from me only to restore my father and sister to me."

"So we see," said the Count, "how through a little trial we may find a great joy. I trust that through our losses we all have gained in humility and sympathy, which have a lasting worth; and [230] perhaps God will return to us our past fortune, just as he has returned your canary to you."

Count Berlow was obliged to spend the winter under the roof of this lowly hut, and Richard was housed in a neighboring one.

The canary bird was hung in the same place it had graced before it was sold to the fancier. Marguerite cared for it daily and never neglected to give it proper food and water.

Often, when the family was gathered together around the friendly fireside, on a cold winter's evening, the bird would begin to sing the song so acceptable to them. The children and the parents would join in the chorus, and they found therein comfort and hope.

The noble family was forced to live for some time in these same narrow quarters; but at last they were permitted to return to their fatherland, where they again came into possession of their property. The Count and Countess rejoiced in being wealthy once more, for now they could return in measure full and overflowing, the goodness and kindness of the friends who had proven themselves in the hour of need.

The good, faithful Richard, with his kind wife and their clever, honest son; John, the brave old fisherman; and the helpful shepherd and shepherdess, together with the devout clergyman, were among the first to receive this reward—the expression of gratitude and love from a family of loyal members.


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