The Pomp of the Lavilettes by Gilbert Parker
"Is he dead? is he dead?" she asked distractedly. "I've just come from the village. Why didn't you send for me? Tell me, is he dead? Oh, tell me at once!"
She caught the Regimental Surgeon's arm. He looked down at her, over his glasses, benignly, for she had always been a favourite of his, and answered:
"Alive, alive, my dear. Bad rip in the shoulder--worn out--weak-- shattered--but good for a while yet--yes, yes--certainement!"
With a wayward impulse, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. The embrace disarranged his glasses and flushed his face like a schoolgirl's, but his eyes were full of embarrassed delight.
"There, there," he said, "we'll take care of him--!" Then suddenly he paused, for the real significance of her action dawned upon him.
"Dear me," he said in disturbed meditation; "dear me!"
She suddenly opened the bedroom door and went in, followed by Nic. The Regimental Surgeon dropped his mouth and cheeks in his hand reflectively, his eyes showing quaintly and quizzically above the glasses and his fingers.
"Well, well! Well, well!" he said, as if he had encountered a difficulty. "It--it will never be possible. He would not marry her," he added, and then, turning, went abstractedly down the stairs.
Ferrol was in a deep sleep when Christine and her brother entered the chamber. Her face turned still more pale when she saw him, flushed, and became pale again. There were leaden hollows round his eyes, and his hair was matted with perspiration. Yet he was handsome--and helpless. Her eyes filled with tears. She turned her head away from her brother and went softly to the window, but not before she had touched the pale hand that lay nerveless upon the coverlet.
"It's not feverish," she said to Nic, as if in necessary explanation of the act.
She stood at the window for a moment, looking out, then said:
"Come here, Nic, and tell me all about it."
He told her all he knew: how he had come to the old house by appointment with Ferrol; had tried to get into the store-room; had found the doors bolted; had heard the noise of a wild animal inside; had run out, tried a window, at last wrenched it open and found Ferrol in a dead faint. He went to the table and brought back the broken bayonet.
"That's all he had to fight with," he said. "Fire of a little hell, but he had grit--after all!"
"That's all he had to fight with!" she repeated, as she untwisted the handkerchief from the hilt end. "Why did you say he had true grit-- 'after all'? What do you mean by that 'after all'?"
"Well, you don't expect much from a man with only one lung--eh?"
"Courage isn't in the lungs," she answered. Then she added: "Go and fetch me a bottle of brandy--I'm going to bathe his hands and feet in brandy and hot water as soon as he's awake."
"Better let mother do that, hadn't you?" he asked rather hesitatingly, as he moved towards the door.
Her eyes snapped fire. "Nic--mon Dieu, hear the nice Nic!" she said. "The dear Nic, who went in swimming with--"
She said no more, for he had no desire to listen to an account of his misdeeds, which were not a few,--and Christine had a galling tongue.
When the door was shut she went to the bed, sat down on a chair beside it, and looked at Ferrol earnestly and sadly.
"My dear! my dear, dear, dear!" she said in a whisper, "you look so handsome and so kind as you lie there--like no man I ever saw in my life. Who'd have fought as you fought--and nearly dead! Who'd have had brains enough to know just what to do! My darling, that never said 'my darling' to me, nor heard me call you so. Suppose you haven't a dollar, not a cent, in the world, and suppose you'll never earn a dollar or a cent in the world, what difference does that make to me? I could earn it; and I'd give more for a touch of your finger than a thousand dollars; and more for a month with you than for a lifetime with the richest man in the world. You never looked cross at me, or at any one, and you never say an unkind thing, and you never find fault when you suffer so. You never hurt any one, I know. You never hurt Vanne Castine--"
Her fingers twitched in her lap, and then clasped very tight, as she went on:
"You never hurt him, and yet he's tried to kill you in the most awful way. Perhaps you'll die now--perhaps you'll die to-night--but no, no, you shall not!" she cried in sudden fright and eagerness, as she got up and leaned over him. "You shall not die; you shall live--for a while-- oh! yes, for a while yet," she added, with a pitiful yearning in her voice; "just for a little while--till you love me, and tell me so! Oh, how could that devil try to kill you!"
She suddenly drew herself up.
"I'll kill him and his bear too--now, now, while you lie there sleeping. And when you wake I'll tell you what I've done, and you'll--you'll love me then, and tell me so, perhaps. Yes, yes, I'll--"
She said no more, for her brother entered with the brandy.
"Put it there," she said, pointing to the table. "You watch him till I come. I'll be back in an hour; and then, when he wakes, we'll bathe him in the hot water and brandy."
"Who told you about hot water and brandy?" he asked her, curiously.
She did not answer him, but passed through the door and down the hall till she came to Nic's bedroom; she went in, took a pair of pistols from the wall, examined them, found they were fully loaded, and hurried from the room.
About a half-hour later she appeared before the house which once had belonged to Vanne Castine. The mortgage had been foreclosed, and the place had passed into the hands of Sophie and Magon Farcinelle; but Castine had taken up his abode in the house a few days before, and defied anyone to put him out.
A light was burning in the kitchen of the house. There were no curtains to the window, but an old coat had been hung up to serve the purpose, and light shone between a sleeve of it and the window-sill. Putting her face close to the window, the girl could see the bear in the corner, clawing at its chain and tossing its head from side to side, still panting and angry from the fight.
Now and again, also, it licked the bayonet-wound between its shoulders, and rubbed its lacerated nose on its paw. Castine was mixing some tar and oil in a pan by the fire, to apply to the still bleeding wounds of his Michael. He had an ugly grin on his face.
He was dressed just as in the first day he appeared in the village, even to the fur cap; and presently, as he turned round, he began to sing the monotonous measure to which the bear had danced. It had at once a soothing effect upon the beast.
After he had gone from the store-room, leaving Ferrol dead, as he thought, it was this song alone which had saved himself from peril; for the beast was wild from pain, fury and the taste of blood. As soon as they had cleared the farmyard, he had begun this song, and the bear, cowed at first by the thrusts of its master's pike, quieted to the well- known ditty.
He approached the bear now, and, stooping, put some of the tar and oil upon its nose. It sniffed and rubbed off the salve, but he put more on; then he rubbed it into the wound of the breast. Once the animal made a fierce snap at his shoulder, but he deftly avoided it, gave it a thrust with a sharp-pointed stick, and began the song again. Presently he rose and came towards the fire.
As he did so he heard the door open. Turning round quickly, he saw Christine standing just inside. She had a shawl thrown round her, and one hand was thrust in the pocket of her dress. She looked from him to the bear, then back again to him.
He did not realise why she had come. For a moment, in his excited state, he almost thought she had come because she loved him. He had seen her twice since his return; but each time she would say nothing to him further than that she wished not to meet or to speak to him at all. He had pleaded with her, had grown angry, and she had left him. Who could tell--perhaps she had come to him now as she had come to him in the old days. He dropped the pan of tar and oil. "Chris!" he said, and started forward to her.
At that moment the bear, as if it knew the girl's mission, sprang forward, with a growl. Its huge mouth was open, and all its fierce lust for killing showed again in its wild lunges. Castine turned, with an oath, and thrust the steel-set pike into its leg. It cowered at the voice and the punishment for an instant, but came on again.
Castine saw the girl raise a pistol and fire at the beast. He was so dumfounded that at first he did not move. Then he saw her raise another pistol. The wounded bear lunged heavily on its chain--once--twice--in a devilish rage, and as Christine prepared to fire, snapped the staple loose and sprang forward.
At the same moment Castine threw himself in front of the girl, and caught the onward rush. Calling the beast by its name, he grappled with it. They were man and servant no longer, but two animals fighting for their lives. Castine drew out his knife, as the bear, raised on its hind legs, crushed him in its immense arms, and still calling, half crazily, "Michael! Michael! down, Michael!" he plunged the knife twice in the beast's side.
The bear's teeth fastened in his shoulder; the horrible pressure of its arms was turning his face black; he felt death coming, when another pistol shot rang out close to his own head, and his breath suddenly came back. He staggered to the wall, and then came to the floor in a heap as the bear lurched downwards and fell over on its side, dead.
Christine had come to kill the beast and, perhaps, the man. The man had saved her life, and now she had saved his; and together they had killed the bear which had maltreated Tom Ferrol.
Castine's eyes were fixed on the dead beast. Everything was gone from him now--even the way to his meagre livelihood; and the cause of it all, as he in his blind, unnatural way thought, was this girl before him--this girl and her people. Her back was towards the door. Anger and passion were both at work in him at once.
"Chris," he said, "Chris, let's call it even-eh? Let's make it up. Chris, ma cherie, don't you remember when we used to meet, and was fond of each other? Let's make it up and leave here--now--to-night-eh?
"I'm not so poor, after all. I'll be paid by Papineau, the leader of the Rebellion--" He made a couple of unsteady steps towards her, for he was weak yet. "What's the good--you're bound to come to me in the end! You've got the same kind of feelings in you; you've--"
She had stood still at first, dazed by his words; but she grew angry quickly, and was about to speak as she felt, when he went on:
"Stay here now with me. Don't go back. Don't you remember Shangois's house? Don't you remember that night--that night when--ah! Chris, stay here--"
Her face was flaming. "I'd rather stay in a room full of wild beasts like that"--she pointed to the bear" than be with you one minute--you murderer!" she said, with choking anger.
He started towards her, saying:
"By the blood of Joseph! but you'll stay just the same; and--"
He got no further, for she threw the pistol in his face with all her might. It struck between his eyes with a thud, and he staggered back, blind, bleeding and faint, as she threw open the door and sped away in the darkness.
Reaching the Manor safely, she ran up to her room, arranged her hair, washed her hands, and came again to Ferrol's bedroom. Knocking softly she was admitted by Nic. There was an unnatural brightness in her eyes. "Where've you been?" he asked, for he noticed this. "What've you been doing?"
"I've killed the bear that tried to kill him," she answered.
She spoke louder than she meant. Her voice awakened Ferrol.
"Eh, what?" he said, "killed the bear, mademoiselle,--my dear friend," he added, "killed the bear!" He coughed a little, and a twinge of pain crossed over his face.
She nodded, and her face was alight with pleasure. She lifted up his head and gave him a little drink of brandy. His fingers closed on hers that held the glass. His touch thrilled her.
"That's good, that's easier," he remarked.
"We're going to bathe you in brandy and hot water, now--Nic and I," she said.
"Bathe me! Bathe me!" he said, in amused consternation.
"Hands and feet," Nic explained.
A few minutes later as she lifted up his head, her face was very near him; her breath was in his face. Her eyes half closed, her fingers trembled. He suddenly drew her to him and kissed her. She looked round swiftly, but her brother had not noticed.