The Pomp of the Lavilettes by Gilbert Parker
In the matter of power, Baby, the inquisitive postmaster and keeper of the bridge, was unlike the new arrival in Bonaventure. The abilities of the Honourable Tom Ferrol lay in a splendid plausibility, a spontaneous blarney. He could no more help being spendthrift of his affections and his morals than of his money, and many a time he had wished that his money was as inexhaustible as his emotions.
In point of morals, any of the Lavilettes presented a finer average than their new guest, who had come to give their feasting distinction, and what more time was to show. Indeed, the Hon. Mr. Ferrol had no morals to speak of, and very little honour. He was the penniless son of an Irish peer, who was himself well-nigh penniless; and he and his sister, whose path of life at home was not easy after her marriageable years had passed, drew from the consols the small sum of money their mother had left them, and sailed away for New York.
Six months of life there, with varying fortune in which a well-to-do girl in society gave him a promise of marriage, and then Ferrol found himself jilted for a baronet, who owned a line of steamships and could give the ambitious lady a title. In his sick heart he had spoken profanely of the future Lady of Title, had bade her good-bye with a smile and an agreeable piece of wit, and had gone home to his flat and sobbed like a schoolboy; for, as much as he could love anybody, he loved this girl. He and the faithful sister vanished from New York and appeared in Quebec, where they were made welcome in Government House, at the citadel, and among all who cared to know the weight of an inherited title. For a time, the fact that he had little or no money did not temper their hospitality with niggardliness or caution. But their cheery and witty guest began to take more wine than was good for him or comfortable for others; his bills at the clubs remained unpaid, his landlord harried him, his tailors pursued him; and then he borrowed cheerfully and well.
However, there came an end to this, and to the acceptance of his I O U's. Following the instincts of his Irish ancestors, he then leagued with a professional smuggler, and began to deal in contraband liquors and cigars. But before this occurred, he had sent his sister to a little secluded town, where she should be well out of earshot of his doings or possible troubles. He would have shielded her from harm at the cost of his life. His loyalty to her was only limited by the irresponsibility of his nature and a certain incapacity to see the difference between radical right and radical wrong. His honour was a matter of tradition, such as it was, and in all else he had the inherent invalidity of some of his distant forebears. For a time all went well, then discovery came, and only the kind intriguing of as good friends as any man deserved prevented his arrest and punishment. But it all got whispered about; and while some ladies saw a touch of romance in his doing professionally and wholesale what they themselves did in an amateurish way with laces, gloves and so on, men viewed the matter more seriously, and advised Ferrol to leave Quebec.
Since that time he had lived by his wits--and pleasing, dangerous wits they were--at Montreal and elsewhere. But fatal ill-luck pursued him. Presently a cold settled on his lungs. In the dead of winter, after sending what money he had to his sister, he had lived a week or more in a room, with no fire and little food. As time went on, the cold got no better. After sundry vicissitudes and twists of fortune, he met Nicolas Lavilette at a horse race, and a friendship was struck up. He frankly and gladly accepted an invitation to attend the wedding of Sophie Lavilette, and to make a visit at the farm, and at the Manor Casimbault afterwards. Nicolas spoke lightly of the Manor Casimbault, yet he had pride in it also; for, scamp as he was, and indifferent to anything like personal dignity or self-respect, he admired his father and had a natural, if good-natured, arrogance akin to Christine's self-will.
It meant to Ferrol freedom from poverty, misery and financial subterfuge for a moment; and he could be quiet--for, as he said, "This confounded cold takes the iron out of my blood."
Like all people stricken with this disease, he never called it anything but a cold. All those illusions which accompany the malady were his. He would always be better "to-morrow." He told the two or three friends who came from their beds in the early morning to see him safely off from Montreal to Bonaventure that he would be all right as soon as he got out into the country; that he sat up too late in the town; and that he had just got a new prescription which had cured a dozen people "with colds and hemorrhages." His was only a cold--just a cold; that was all. He was a bit weak sometimes, and what he needed was something to pull up his strength. The country would do this-plenty of fresh air, riding, walking, and that sort of thing.
He had left Montreal behind in gay spirits, and he continued gay for several hours, holding himself' erect in the seat, noting the landscape, telling stories; but he stumbled with weakness as they got out of the coach for luncheon. He drank three full portions of whiskey at table, and ate nothing. The silent landlady who waited on them at last brought a huge bowl of milk, and set it before him without a word. A flush passed swiftly across his face and faded away, as, with quick sensitiveness, he glanced at Nicolas and another passenger, a fat priest. They took no notice, and, reassured, he said, with a laugh, that the landlady knew exactly what he wanted. Lifting the dish, he drained it at a gasp, though the milk almost choked him, and, to the apprehension of his hostess, set the bowl spinning on the table like a top. Another illusion of the disease was his: that he succeeded perfectly in deceiving everybody round him with his pathetic make-believe; and, unlike most deceivers, he deceived himself as well. The two actions, inconsistent as they were, were reconciled in him, as in all the race of consumptives, by some strange chemistry of the mind and spirit. He was on the broad, undiverging highway to death; yet, with every final token about him that he was in the enemy's country, surrounded, trapped, soon to be passed unceremoniously inside the citadel at the end of the avenue, he kept signalling back to old friends that all was well, and he told himself that to-morrow the king should have his own again--"To-morrow, and to- morrow, and to-morrow!"
He was not very thin in body; his face was full, and at times his eyes were singularly and fascinatingly bright. He had colour--that hectic flush which, on his cheek, was almost beautiful. One would have turned twice to see. The quantities of spirits that he drank (he ate little) would have killed a half-dozen healthy men. To him it was food, taken up, absorbed by the fever of his disease, giving him a real, not a fictitious strength; and so it would continue to do till some artery burst and choked him, or else, by some miracle of air and climate, the hole in his lung healed up again; which he, in his elation, believed would be "to-morrow." Perhaps the air, the food, and life of Bonaventure were the one medicine he needed!
But, in the moment Nicolas said to him that Bonaventure was just over the hill, that they would be able to see it now, he had a sudden feeling of depression. He felt that he would give anything to turn back. A perspiration broke out on his forehead and his cheek. His eyes had a wavering, anxious look. Some of that old sanity of the once healthy man was making a last effort for supremacy, breaking in upon illusive hopes and irresponsible deceptions.
It was only for a moment. Presently, from the top of the hill, they looked down upon the long line of little homes lying along the banks of the river like peaceful watchmen in a pleasant land, with corn and wine and oil at hand. The tall cross on the spire of the Parish Church was itself a message of hope. He did not define it so; but the impression vaguely, perhaps superstitiously, possessed him. It was this vague influence, perhaps (for he was not a Catholic), which made him involuntarily lift his hat, as did Nicolas, when they passed a calvary; which induced him likewise to make the sacred gesture when they met a priest, with an acolyte and swinging censer, hurrying silently on to the home of some dying parishioner. The sensations were different from anything he had known. He had been used to the Catholic religion in Ireland; he had seen it in France, Spain, Italy and elsewhere; but here was something essentially primitive, archaically touching and convincing.
His spirits came back with a rush; he had a splendid feeling of exaltation. He was not religious, never could be, but he felt religious; he was ill, but he felt that he was on the open highway to health; he was dishonest, but he felt an honest man; he was the son of a peer, but he felt himself brother to the fat miller by the roadway, to Baby, the postmaster and keeper of the bridge, to the Regimental Surgeon, who stood in his doorway, pulling at his moustache and blowing clouds of tobacco smoke into the air.
Shangois, the notary, met his eye as they dashed on. A new sensation-- not a change in the elation he felt, but an instant's interruption-- came to him. He asked who Shangois was, and Nicolas told him.
"A notary, eh?" he remarked gaily. "Well, why does he disguise himself? He looks like a ragpicker, and has the eye of Solomon and the devil in one. He ought to be in some Star Chamber--Palmerston could make use of him."
"Oh, he's kept busy enough with secrets here!" was Nicolas's laughing reply.
"It's only a difference of size in the secrets anyhow," was Ferrol's response in the same vein; and in a few moments they had passed the Seigneury, and were drawn up before the great farmhouse.
Its appearance was rather comfortable and commodious than impressive, but it had the air of home and undepreciating use. There was one beautiful clump of hollyhocks and sunflowers in the front garden; a corner of the main building was covered with morning-glories; a fence to the left was overgrown with grape-vines, making it look like a hedge; a huge pear tree occupied a spot opposite to the pretty copse of sunflowers and hollyhocks; and the rest of the garden was green, save just round a little "summer-house," in the corner, with its back to the road, near which Sophie had set a palisade of the golden-rod flower. Just beside the front door was a bush of purple lilac; and over the door, in copper, was the coat-of-arms of the Lavilettes, placed there, at Madame's insistence, in spite of the dying wish of Lavilette's father, a feeble, babbling old gentleman in knee-breeches, stock, and swallow-tailed coat, who, broken down by misfortune, age and loneliness, had gathered himself together for one last effort for becomingness against his daughter-in- law's false tastes--and had died the day after. He was spared the indignity of the coat-of-arms on the tombstone only by the fierce opposition of Louis Lavilette, who upon this point had his first quarrel with his wife.
Ferrol saw no particular details in his first view of the house. The picture was satisfying to a tired man--comfort, quiet, the bread of idleness to eat, and welcome, admiring faces round him. Monsieur Lavilette stood in the doorway, and behind him, at a carefully disposed distance, was Madame, rather more emphatically dressed than necessary. As he shook hands genially with Madame he saw Sophie and Christine in the doorway of the parlour. His spirits took another leap. His inexhaustible emotions were out upon cheerful parade at once.
The Lavilettes immediately became pensioners of his affections. The first hour of his coming he himself did not know which sister his ample heart was spending itself on most--Sophie, with her English face, and slow, docile, well-bred manner, or Christine, dark, petite, impertinent, gay-hearted, wilful, unsparing of her tongue for others--or for herself. Though Christine's lips and cheeks glowed, and her eyes had wonderful warm lights, incredulity was constantly signalled from both eyes and lips. She was a fine, daring little animal, with as great a talent for untruth as truth, though, to this point in her life, truth had been more with her. Her temptations had been few.