The Pomp of the Lavilettes by Gilbert Parker
Ferrols's recovery from his injuries was swifter than might have been expected. As soon as he was able to move about Christine was his constant attendant. She had made herself his nurse, and no one had seriously interfered, though the Cure had not at all vaguely offered a protest to Madame Lavilette. But Madame Lavilette was now in the humour to defy or evade the Cure, whichever seemed the more convenient or more necessary. To be linked by marriage with the nobility would indeed be the justification of all her long-baffled hopes. Meanwhile, the parish gossiped, though little of that gossip was heard at the Manor Casimbault. By and by the Cure ceased to visit the Manor, but the Regimental Surgeon came often, and sometimes stayed late. He, perhaps, could have given Madame Lavilette the best advice and warning; but, in truth, he enjoyed what he considered a piquant position. Once, drawing at his pipe, as little like an Englishman as possible, he tried to say with an English accent, "Amusing and awkward situation!" but he said, "Damn funny and chic!" instead. He had no idea that any particular harm would be done-- either by love or marriage; and neither seemed certain.
One day as Ferrol, entirely convalescent, was sitting in an arbour of the Manor garden, half asleep, he was awakened by voices near him.
He did not recognise one of the voices; the other was Nic Lavilette's.
The strange voice was saying: "I have collected five thousand dollars-- all that can be got in the two counties. It is at the Seigneury. Here is an order on the Seigneur Duhamel. Go there in two days and get the money. You will carry it to headquarters. These are General Papineau's orders. You will understand that your men--"
Ferrol heard no more, for the two rebels passed on, their voices becoming indistinct. He sat for a few moments moveless, for an idea had occurred to him even as Papineau's agent spoke.
If that money were only his!
Five thousand dollars--how that would ease the situation! The money belonged to whom? To a lot of rebels: to be used for making war against the British Government. After the money left the hands of the men who gave it--Lavilette and the rest--it wasn't theirs. It belonged to a cause. Well, he was the enemy of that cause. All was fair in love and war!
There were two ways of doing it. He could waylay Nicolas as he came from the house of the old seigneur, could call to him to throw up his hands in good highwayman fashion, and, well disguised, could get away with the money without being discovered. Or again, he could follow Nic from the Seigneury to the Manor, discover where he kept the money, and devise a plan to steal it.
For some time he had given up smoking; but now, as a sort of celebration of his plan, he opened his cigar case, and finding two cigars left, took one out and lighted it.
"By Jove," he said to himself, "thieving is a nice come-down, I must say! But a man has to live, and I'm sick of charity--sick of it. I've had enough."
He puffed his cigar briskly, and enjoyed the forbidden and deadly luxury to the full.
Presently he got up, took his stick, came down-stairs, and passed out into the garden. The shoulder which had been lacerated by the bear drooped forward some what, and seemed smaller than the other. Although he held himself as erect as possible, you still could have laid your hand in the hollow of his left breast, and it would have done no more than give it a natural fulness. Perhaps it was a sort of vanity, perhaps a kind of courage, which made him resolutely straighten himself, in spite of the deadly weight dragging his shoulder down. He might be melancholy in secret, but in public he was gay and hopeful, and talked of everything except himself. On that interesting topic he would permit no discussion. Yet there often came jugs and jars from friendly people, who never spoke to him of his disease--they were polite and sensitive, these humble folk --but sent him their home-made medicines, with assurances scrawled on paper that "it would cure Mr. Ferrol's cold, oh, absolutely."
Before the Lavilettes he smiled, and received the gifts in a debonair way, sometimes making whimsical remarks. At the same time the jugs and jars of cordial (whose contents varied from whiskey, molasses and boneset, to rum, licorice, gentian and sarsaparilla roots) he carried to his room; and he religiously tried them all by turn. Each seemed to do him good for a few days, then to fail of effect; and he straightway tried another, with renewed hope on every occasion, and subsequent disappointment. He also secretly consulted the Regimental Surgeon, who was too kindhearted to tell him the truth; and he tried his hand at various remedies of his own, which did no more than to loosen the cough which was breaking down his strength.
As now, he often walked down the street swinging his cane, not as though he needed it for walking, but merely for occupation and companionship. He did not delude the villagers by these sorrowful deceptions, but they made believe he did. There were a few people who did not like him; but they were of that cantankerous minority who put thorns in the bed of the elect.
To-day, occupied with his thoughts, he walked down the main road, then presently diverged on a side road which led past Magon Farcinelle's house to an old disused mill, owned by Magon's father. He paused when he came opposite Magon's house, and glanced up at the open door. He was tired, and the coolness of the place looked inviting. He passed through the gate, and went lightly up the path. He could see straight through the house into the harvest-fields at the back. Presently a figure crossed the lane of light, and made a cheerful living foreground to the blue sky beyond the farther door. The light and ardour of the scene gave him a thrill of pleasure, and hurried his footsteps. The air was palpitating with sleepy comfort round him, and he felt a new vitality pass into him: his imagination was feeding his enfeebled body; his active brain was giving him a fresh counterfeit of health. The hectic flush on his pale face deepened. He came to the wooden steps of the piazza, or stoop, and then paused a moment, as if for breath; but, suddenly conscious of what he was doing, he ran briskly up the steps, knocked with his cane upon the door jamb, and, without waiting, stepped inside.
Between him and the outer door, against the ardent blue background, stood Sophie Farcinelle--the English faced Sophie--a little heavy, a little slow, but with the large, long profile which is the type of English beauty--docile, healthy, cow-like. Her face, within her sunbonnet, caught the reflected light, and the pink calico of her dress threw a glow over her cheeks and forehead, and gave a good gleam to her eyes. She had in her hands a dish of strawberries. It was a charming picture in the eyes of a man to whom the feelings of robustness and health were mostly a reminiscence. Yet, while the first impression was on him, he contrasted Sophie with the impetuous, fiery-hearted Christine, with her dramatic Gallic face and blood, to the latter's advantage, in spite of the more harmonious setting of this picture.
Sophie was in place in this old farmhouse, with its dormer windows, with the weaver's loom in the large kitchen, the meat-block by the fireplace, and the big bread-tray by the stove, where the yeast was as industrious as the reapers beyond in the fields. She was in keeping with the chromo of the Madonna and the Child upon the wall, with the sprig of holy palm at the shrine in the corner, with the old King Louis blunderbuss above the chimney.
Sophie tried to take off her sunbonnet with one hand, but the knot tightened, and it tipped back on her head, giving her a piquant air. She flushed.
"Oh, m'sieu'!" she said in English, "it's kind of you to call. I am quite glad--yes."
Then she turned round to put the strawberries upon a table, but he was beside her in an instant and took the dish out of her hands. Placing it on the table, he took a couple of strawberries in his fingers.
"May I?" he asked in French.
She nodded as she whipped off the sunbonnet, and replied in her own language:
"Certainly, as many as you want."
He bit into one, but got no further with it. Her back was turned to him, and he threw the berry out of the window. She felt rather than saw what he had done. She saw that he was fagged. She instantly thought of a cordial she had in the house, the gift of a nun from the Ursuline Convent in Quebec; a precious little bottle which she had kept for the anniversary of her wedding day. If she had been told in the morning that she would open that bottle now, and for a stranger, she probably would have resented the idea with scorn.
His disguised weariness still exciting her sympathy, she offered him a chair.
"You will sit down, m'sieu'?" she asked. "It is very warm."
She did not say: "You look very tired." She instinctively felt that it would suggest the delicate state of his health.
The chair was inviting enough, with its chintz cover and wicker seat, but he would never admit fatigue. He threw his leg half jauntily over the end of the table and said:
"No--no, thanks; I'd rather not sit."
His forehead was dripping with perspiration. He took out his handkerchief and dried it. His eyes were a little heavy, but his complexion was a delicate and unnatural pink and white-like a piece of fine porcelain. It was a face without care, without vice, without fear, and without morals. For the absence of vice with the absence of morals are not incongruous in a human face. Sophie went into another room for a moment, and brought back a quaint cut-glass bottle of cordial.
"It is very good," she said, as she took the cork out; "better than peach brandy or things like that."
He watched her pour it out into a wine-glass, and as soon as he saw the colour and the flow of it he was certain of its quality.
"That looks like good stuff," he said, as she handed him a glass brimming over; "but you must have one with me. I can't drink alone, you know."
"Oh, m'sieu', if you please, no," she answered half timidly, flattered by the glance of his eye--a look of flattery which was part of his stock-in- trade. It had got him into trouble all his life.
"Ah, madame, but I plead yes!" he answered, with a little encouraging nod towards her. "Come, let me pour it for you."
He took the odd little bottle and poured her glass as full as his own.
"If Magon were only here--he'd like some, I know," she said, vaguely struggling with a sense of impropriety, though why, she did not know; for, on the surface, this was only dutiful hospitality to a distinguished guest. The impropriety probably lay in the sensations roused by this visit and this visitor. "I intended--"
"Oh, we must try to get along without monsieur," he said, with a little cough; "he's a busy gentleman." The rather rude and flippant sentiment seemed hardly in keeping with the fatal token of his disease.
"Of course, he's far away out there in the field, mowing," she said, as if in apology for something or other. "Yes, he's ever so far away," was his reply, as he turned half lazily to the open doorway.
Neither spoke for a moment. The eyes of both were on the distant harvest-fields. Vaguely, not decisively, the hazy, indolent air of summer was broken by the lazy droning of the locusts and grasshoppers. A driver was calling to his oxen down the dusty road, the warning bark of a dog came across the fields from the gap in the fence which he was tending, and the blades of tho scythes made three-quarter circles of light as the mowers travelled down the wheat-fields.
When their eyes met again, the glasses of cordial were at their lips. He held her look by the intentional warmth and meaning of his own, drinking very slowly to the last drop; and then, like a bon viveur, drew a breath of air through his open mouth, and nodded his satisfaction.
"By Jove, but it is good stuff!" he said. "Here's to the nun that made it," he added, making a motion to drink from the empty glass.
Sophie had not drunk all her cordial. At least one third of it was still in the glass. She turned her head away, a little dismayed by his toast.
"Come, that's not fair," he said. "That elixir shouldn't be wasted. Voila, every drop of it now!" he added, with an insinuating smile and gesture.
"Oh, m'sieu'!" she said in protest, but drank it off. He still held the empty glass in his hand, twisting it round musingly.
"A little more, m'sieu'?" she asked, "just a little?" Perhaps she was surprised that he did not hesitate. He instantly held out his glass.
"It was made by a saint; the result should be health and piety--I need both," he added, with a little note of irony in his voice.
"So, once again, my giver of good gifts--to you!" He raised his glass again, toasting her, but paused. "No, this won't do; you must join me," he added.
"Oh, no, m'sieu', no! It is not possible. I feel it now in my head and in all of me. Oh, I feel so warm all, through, and my heart it beats so very fast! Oh, no, m'sieu', no more!"
Her cheeks were glowing, and her eyes had become softer and more brilliant under the influence of the potent liqueur.
"Well, well, I'll let you off this time; but next time--next time, remember."
He raised the glass once more, and let the cordial drain down lazily.
He had said, "next time"--she noticed that. He seemed very fond of this strong liqueur. She placed the bottle on the table, her own glass beside it.
"For a minute, a little minute," she said suddenly, and went quickly into the other room.
He coolly picked up the bottle of liqueur, poured his glass full once more, and began drinking it off in little sips. Presently he stood up, and throwing back his shoulder, with a little ostentation of health, he went over to the chintz-covered chair, and sat down in it. His mood was contented and brisk. He held up the glass of liqueur against the sunlight.
"Better than any Benedictine I ever tasted," he said. "A dozen bottles of that would cure this beastly cold of mine. By Jove! it would. It's as good as the Gardivani I got that blessed day when we chaps of the Ninetieth breakfasted with the King of Savoy." He laughed to himself at the reminiscence. "What a day that was, what a stunning day that was!"
He was still smiling, his white teeth showing humorously, when Sophie again entered the room. He had forgotten her, forgotten all about her. As she came in he made a quick, courteous movement to rise--too quick; for a sharp pain shot through his breast, and he grew pale about the lips. But he made essay to stand up lightly, nevertheless.
She saw his paleness, came quickly to him, and put out her hand to gently force him back into his seat, but as instantly decided not to notice his indisposition, and turned towards the table instead. Taking the bottle of cordial, she brought it over, and not looking at him, said:
"Just one more little glass, m'sieu'?" She had in her other hand a plate of seed-cakes. "But yes, you must sit down and eat a cake," she added adroitly. "They are very nice, and I made them myself. We are very fond of them; and once, when the bishop stayed at our house, he liked them too."
Before he sat down he drank off the whole of the cordial in the glass.
She took a chair near him, and breaking a seed-cake began eating it. His tongue was loosened now, and he told her what he was smiling at when she came into the room. She was amused, and there was a little awe to her interest also. To think--she was sitting here, talking easily to a man who had eaten at kings' tables--with the king! Yet she was at ease too-- since she had drunk the cordial. It had acted on her like some philtre. He begged that she would go on with her work; and she got the dish of strawberries, and began stemming them while he talked.
It was much easier talking or listening to him while she was so occupied. She had never enjoyed anything so much in her life. She was not clever, like Christine, but she had admiration of ability, and was obedient to the charm of temperament. Whenever Ferrol had met her he had lavished little attentions on her, had said things to her that carried weight far beyond their intention. She had been pleased at the time, but they had had no permanent effect.
Now everything he said had a different influence: she felt for the first time that it was not easy to look into his eyes, and as if she never could again without betraying--she knew not what.
So they sat there, he talking, she listening and questioning now and then. She had placed the bottle of liqueur and the seed-cakes at his elbow on the windowsill; and as if mechanically, he poured out a glassful, and after a little time, still another, and at last, apparently unconsciously, poured her out one also, and handed it to her. She shook her head; he still held the glass poised; her eyes met his; she made a feeble sort of protest, then took the glass and drank off the liqueur in little sips.
"Gad, that puts fat on the bones, and gives the gay heart!" he said. "Doesn't it, though?"
She laughed quietly. Her nature was warm, and she had the animal-like fondness for physical ease and content.
"It's as if there wasn't another stroke of work to do in the world," she answered, and sat contentedly back in her chair, the strawberries in her lap. Her fingers, stained with red, lay beside the bowl. All the strings of conscious duty were loose, and some of them were flying. The bumble-bee that flew in at the door and boomed about the room contributed to the day-dream.
She never quite knew how it happened that a moment later he was bending over the back of her chair, with her face upturned to his, and his lips-- With that touch thrilling her, she sprang to her feet, and turned away from him towards the table. Her face was glowing like a peony, and a troubled light came into her eyes. He came over to her, after a moment, and spoke over her shoulders as he just touched her waist with his fingers.
"A la bonne heure--Sophie!"
"Oh, it isn't--it isn't right," she said, her body slightly inclining from him.
"One minute out of a whole life--What does it matter! Ce ne fait rien! Good-bye-Sophie."
Now she inclined towards him. He was about to put his arms round her, when he heard the distant sound of a horse's hoofs. He let her go, and turned towards the front door. Through it he saw Christine driving up the road. She would pass the house.
"Good-bye-Sophie," he said again over her shoulder, softly; and, picking up his hat and stick, he left the house.
Her eyes followed him dreamily as he went up the road. She sat down in a chair, the trance of the passionate moment still on her, and began to brood. She vaguely heard the rattle of a buggy--Christine's--as it passed the house, and her thoughts drifted into a new-discovered hemisphere where life was all a somnolent sort of joy and bodily love.
She was roused at last by a song which came floating across the fields. The air she knew, and the voice she knew. The chanson was, "Le Voleur de grand Chemin!" The voice was her husband's.
She knew the words, too; and even before she could hear them, they were fitting into the air:
"Qui va la! There's some one in the orchard, There's a robber in the apple-trees; Qui va la! He is creeping through the doorway. Ah, allez-vous-en! Va-t'-en!"
She hurriedly put away the cordial and the seed-cakes. She picked up the bottle. It was empty. Ferrol had drunk near half a pint of the liqueur! She must get another bottle of it somehow. It would never do for Magon to know that the precious anniversary cordial was all gone--in this way.
She hurried towards the other room. The voice of the farrier-farmer was more distinct now. She could hear clearly the words of the song. She looked out. The square-shouldered, blue-shirted Magon was skirting the turnip field, making a short cut home. His straw hat was pushed back on his head, his scythe was over his shoulder. He had cut the last swathe in the field--now for Sophie. He was not handsome, and she had known that always; but he seemed rough and coarse to-day. She did not notice how well he fitted in with everything about him; and he was so healthy that even three glasses of that cordial would have sent him reeling to bed.
As she passed into the dining-room, the words of the song followed her:
"Qui va la! If you please, I own the mansion, And this is my grandfather's gun! Qui va la! Now you're a dead man, robber Ah, allez-vous-en! Va-t'-en!"