the hon. matilda shirley to diana, marchioness of d--------, sept 10, 181-.:
my dear friend, in my last letter, if you recall, i mentioned the romance that dear percival has so winningly persuaded me to spend a few lazy hours penning. without further comment, therefore, i give you the first page or so of:
the last woman
it was a dark and gloomy morning - a true harbinger of things to come.
the duc de montardon paced in front of the window of the main salon of the castle on the grounds of his estate in the southern mountains. the duc, who in his long career in politics was famous for his imperturbability, was on this morning quite openly agitated, making no effort to hide his distress and impatience from the servants who attended him, or from the two personages of his own rank who watched him from their chairs in front of the fireplace.
the first of these persons was the baron de romette, the duc's long time ally in the council rooms of the kingdom, who had, like himself, been deposed in the latest round of upheavals. the duc, who had held the true power, had had the humble title of minister at large. the baron had held the twin portfolios of finance and foreign affairs.
the baron's ample frame filled his chair beyond its capacity, but he lounged in it comfortably enough. he gazed out the window at the gray sky and took a pinch of snuff.
"come, old fellow, surely we will get through this day as we have so many others. how many of these fanatics have we seen come and go? and these new fellows are the most ridiculous of all. are they not?" the baron turned and smiled at the occupant of the chair opposite his - a woman a good forty years the junior of the two men , and the duc's betrothed. or so she had become, only the day before.
"and yet," the young woman answered evenly, "each of these fanatics in turn claim their prizes and their hostages, do they not, before the wheel turns and things return to - normal." she leaned back in her chair. "someday so called normality, like a horse that has been whipped one time too many, may fall down in its traces and not rise again."
"and you imagine that this is that time? bah!" the baron turned his gaze back out the window. "i understand, my dear, that you, being more directly threatened by the decrees of these lunatics, may feel some apprehension at the thought that they will actually be implemented -" he shrugged. "but, really... they are just too absurd, too absurd..."
the young woman smiled. "let us hope so. meanwhile, the heavens have certainly cooperated to the extent of providing a suitable background for the occasion, have they not?" a few large raindrops struck the window. the young woman took a sip from the teacup in her lap, and grimaced slightly.
a servant immediately sprung forward. "would mademoiselle like a fresh serving of tea?"
"yes, please. this is a bit cold."
"right away. and would mademoiselle like something else - a cream tart, perhaps?"
"not at this time."
"but i would," interjected the baron. "three or four of them, in fact."
"right away, monsieur."
montardon laughed shortly and shook his head. "some things never change." he moved away from the window, took up the poker in front of the fireplace and pushed it around the logs, waving away the servant who sprang over to assist him. "you will have the devil carry a full plate in front of you, when you descend into hell."
"and why not?" replied the baron. "if these fellows are going to show up with baskets for all our heads, why not enjoy these last minutes, eh? "
the duc shot him a look of reproach, but he affected to not notice. nor did the young woman seem discountenanced by the remark.
"they should be here shortly," she murmured. "they do have a reputation for punctuality, do they not?"
"oh yes," the duc answered her. "you can generally count on a zealot for that." and returning the poker to its place, he turned back to the window, which was now streaked with rain.
"unless," said the baron, "they are caught up in a discourse or disputation on the fine points of their doctrine."
they fell silent. the rain continued to fall. the servant returned with the fresh tea and the baron's cream tarts.
the baron was finishing his second tart when the duc's major domo entered. "two carriages are coming up the pass, monsieur."
"two! thank you, jacques."
"then they have come to take at least one of us away," observed the baron.
the young woman paled slightly.
"we shall see," said the duc. he rubbed his hands together. "we shall see,"
they had not long to wait. jacques returned twenty minutes later, followed by two men in plain gray dress, and two members of the revolutionary militia, in blue uniforms with pistols at their belts.
"these gentlemen, monsieur, are from the committee for the promulgation of the new order." jacques bowed and turned to leave but the duc stopped him.
"stay, jacques. i do not expect to keep these gentlemen long. so, monsieurs, you have for me a response to my request to the committee? presumably in writing?"
the older and taller of the two men replied after a pause. "nothing in writing, monsieur le duc." he turned to face the young woman. "this is the woman annette de normand, regarding whom you made your request for an exception to the declaration of june 23?"
the young woman stood up. "yes, i am the marquise annette de normand."
"we do not recognize titles in women."
the baron, still seated in his chair, laughed. he brushed a few crumbs of cream tart from his vest with a silk handkerchief. "what idiocy!"
"this is all very well, monsieur, " the duc addressed the man in gray, "but what of my request? it has, of course, been granted, has it not? i had the assurance of the duc de - "
the man in gray interrupted him. "do you have anything in writing?"
"no, but i had an understanding - "
"we do not care if you had an understanding with the archangel michael, monsieur. your request has been denied. summarily denied."
"denied by whom?"
"by monsieur le fer himself."
the duc paled. "i see. i request, then, to make an appeal."
"there are no appeals. the committee has no time for such nonsense."
"then, the marquise - "
"will come with us."
"so, i am under arrest, then?" asked the young marquise.
now the second, younger man in gray stepped forward. "arrest is a rude word. as prescribed by the declaration of june 23 the lady will come with us." he smiled at annette, and surveyed her with the eye and air of a gallant. it was quickly apparent from his speech that he was more at home, much more at home, in the company of dukes and marquises than was his companion.
"and do i dare ask where you are taking me?" asked annette. "as it seems that i am no longer a marquise, am i then to suffer the fate of my fellow daughters of eve?"
"you mean, as if you were a seamstress, or a milkmaid, or the wife of a country town mayor? probably not. i can not speak for the committee, being only a humble servant of the revolution - "
"enough of this japery!" cried the duc. "speak plainly, fellow! what do you intend to do with mademoiselle?"
''fair enough, monsieur," the young man replied in a colder tone. "what will become of mademoiselle?" he turned, and looked her up and down. "she will probably be offered to the masters of the huns, or of the tartars, or of some other savage empire. you have some experience of diplomacy, monsieur, do you not? of the wide world. what did you think we would do with her?"
"this is all preposterous! i do not know who you are, young man, or what your game is, but the masters you are serving are mad! "
"really, monsieur? and you are just becoming aware of it? june 23 has come and gone and here we are. here we are. the young lady will come with us."
the marquise took a deep breath. "surely you will allow me to pack a few things."
"no. we have everything you need. we need not detain these distinguished gentlemen longer. come with us."
the two militiamen stepped forward, with their hands on their pistols.