CHAPTER I. CASTLE MISERY
Upon the southern slope of one of those barren hills that rise abruptly here and there in the desolate expanse of the Landes, in South-western France, stood, in the reign of Louis XIII, a gentleman’s residence, such as abound in Gascony, and which the country people dignify by the name of chateau.
Two tall towers, with extinguisher tops, mounted guard at the angles of the mansion, and gave it rather a feudal air. The deep grooves upon its facade betrayed the former existence of a draw-bridge, rendered unnecessary now by the filling up of the moat, while the towers were draped for more than half their height with a most luxuriant growth of ivy, whose deep, rich green contrasted happily with the ancient gray walls.
A traveller, seeing from afar the steep pointed roof and lofty towers standing out against the sky, above the furze and heather that crowned the hill-top, would have pronounced it a rather imposing chateau—the residence probably of some provincial magnate; but as he drew near would have quickly found reason to change his opinion. The road which led to it from the highway was entirely overgrown with moss and weeds, save a narrow pathway in the centre, though two deep ruts, full of water, and inhabited by a numerous family of frogs, bore mute witness to the fact that carriages had once passed that way.
The roof, of dark red tiles, was disfigured by many large, leprous-looking, yellow patches, while in some places the decayed rafters had given way, leaving formidable gaps. The numerous weather-cocks that surmounted the towers and chimneys were so rusted that they could no longer budge an inch, and pointed persistently in various directions. The high dormer windows were partially closed by old wooden shutters, warped, split, and in every stage of dilapidation; broken stones filled up the loop-holes and openings in the towers; of the twelve large windows in the front of the house, eight were boarded up; the remaining four had small diamond-shaped panes of thick, greenish glass, fitting so loosely in their leaden frames that they shook and rattled at every breath of wind; between these windows a great deal of the stucco had fallen off, leaving the rough wall exposed to view.
Above the grand old entrance door, whose massive stone frame and lintel retained traces of rich ornamentation, almost obliterated by time and neglect, was sculptured a coat of arms, now so defaced that the most accomplished adept in heraldry would not be able to decipher it. Only one leaf of the great double door was ever opened now, for not many guests were received or entertained at the chateau in these days of its decadence. Swallows had built their nests in every available nook about it, and but for a slender thread of smoke rising spirally from a chimney at the back of this dismal, half-ruined mansion, the traveller would have surely believed it to be uninhabited. This was the only sign of life visible about the whole place, like the little cloud upon the mirror from the breath of a dying man, which alone gives evidence that he still lives.