The Pomp of the Lavilettes by Gilbert Parker
Mr. Ferrol seemed honestly to like the old farmhouse, with its low ceilings, thick walls, big beams and wide chimneys, and he showed himself perfectly at home. He begged to be allowed to sit for an hour in the kitchen, beside the great fireplace. He enjoyed this part of his first appearance greatly. It was like nothing he had tasted since he used, as a boy, to visit the huntsman's home on his father's estate, and gossip and smoke in that Galway chimney-corner. It was only when he had to face the too impressive adoration of Madame Lavilette that his comfort got a twist.
He made easy headway into the affections of his hostess; for, besides all other predilections, she had an adoring awe of the nobility. It rather surprised her that Ferrol seemed almost unaware of his title. He was quite without self-consciousness, although there was that little touch of irresponsibility in him which betrayed a readiness to sell his dignity for a small compensation. With a certain genial capacity for universal blarney, he was at first as impressive with Sophie as he was attentive to Christine. It was quite natural that presently Madame Lavilette should see possibilities beyond all her past imaginations. It would surely advance her ambitions to have him here for Sophie's wedding; but even as she thought that, she had twinges of disappointment, because she had promised Farcinelle to have the wedding as simple and bourgeois as possible.
Farcinelle did not share the social ambitions of the Lavilettes. He liked his political popularity, and he was only concerned for that. He had that touch of shrewdness to save him from fatuity where the Lavilettes were concerned. He was determined to associate with the ceremony all the primitive customs of the country. He had come of a race of simple farmers, and he was consistent enough to attempt to live up to the traditions of his people. He was entirely too good-natured to take exception to Ferrol's easy-going admiration of Sophie.
Ferrol spoke excellent French, and soon found points of pleasant contact with Monsieur Lavilette, who, despite the fact that he had coarsened as the years went on, had still upon him the touch of family tradition, which may become either offensive pride or defensive self-respect. With the Cure, Ferrol was not quite so successful. The ascetic, prudent priest, with that instinctive, long-sighted accuracy which belongs to the narrow-minded, scented difficulty. He disliked the English exceedingly; and all Irishmen were English men to him. He resisted Ferrol's blarney. His thin lips tightened, his narrow forehead seemed to grow narrower, and his very cassock appeared to contract austerely on his figure as he talked to the refugee of misfortune.
When the most pardonable of gossips, the Regimental Surgeon, asked him on his way home what he thought of Ferrol, he shrugged his shoulders, tightened his lips again, and said:
"A polite, designing heretic."
The Regimental Surgeon, though a Frenchman, had once belonged to a British battery of artillery stationed at Quebec, and there he had acquired an admiration for the English, which betrayed itself in his curious attempts to imitate Anglo-Saxon bluffness and blunt spontaneity. When the Cure had gone, he flung back his shoulders, with a laugh, as he had seen the major-general do at the officers' mess at the citadel, and said in English:
"Heretics are damn' funny. I will go and call. I have also some Irish whiskey. He will like that; and pipes--pipes, plenty of them!"
The pipe he was smoking at the moment had been given to him by the major- general, and he polished the silver ferrule, with its honourable inscription, every morning of his life.
On the morning of the second day after Ferrol came, he was carried off to the Manor Casimbault to see the painful alterations which were being made there under the direction of Madame Lavilette. Sophie, who had a good deal of natural taste, had in the old days fought against her mother's incongruous ideas, and once, when the rehabilitation of the Manor Casimbault came up, she had made a protest; but it was unavailing, and it was her last effort. The Manor Casimbault was destined to be an example of ancient dignity and modern bad taste. Alterations were going on as Madame Lavilette, Ferrol and Christine entered.
For some time Ferrol watched the proceedings with a casual eye, but presently he begged his hostess that she would leave the tall, old oak clock where it was in the big hall, and that the new, platter-faced office clock, intended for its substitute, be hung up in the kitchen. He eyed the well-scraped over-mantel askance and saw, with scarcely concealed astonishment, a fine, old, carved wooden seat carried out of doors to make room for an American rocking-chair. He turned his head away almost in anger when he saw that the beautiful brown wainscoting was being painted an ultra-marine blue. His partly disguised astonishment and dissent were not lost upon the crude but clever Christine. A new sense was opened up in her, and she felt somehow that the ultra-marine blue was not right, that the over-mantel had been spoiled, that the new walnut table was too noticeable, and that the American rocking-chair looked very common. Also she felt that the plush, with which her mother and the dressmaker at St. Croix had decorated her bodice, was not the thing. Presently this made her angry.
"Won't you sit down?" she asked a little maliciously, pointing to the rocking-chair in the salon.
"I prefer standing--with you," he answered, eyeing the chair with a sly twinkle.
"No, that isn't it," she rejoined sharply. "You don't like the chair." Then suddenly breaking into English--"Ah! I know, I know. You can't fool me. I see de leetla look in your eye; and you not like the paint, and you'd pitch that painter, Alcide, out into the snow if it is your house."
"I wouldn't, really," he answered--he coughed a little--"Alcide is doing his work very well. Couldn't you give me a coat of blue paint, too?"
The piquant, intelligent, fiery peasant face interested him. It had warmth, natural life and passion.
She flushed and stamped her foot, while he laughed heartily; and she was about to say something dangerous, when the laugh suddenly stopped and he began coughing. The paroxysm increased until he strained and caught at his breast with his hand. It seemed as if his chest and throat must burst.
She instantly changed. The flush of anger passed from her face, and something else came into it. She caught his hand.
"Oh! what can I do, what can I do to help you?" she asked pitifully. "I did not know you were so ill. Tell me, what can I do?"
He made a gentle, protesting motion of his free arm--he could not speak yet--while she held and clasped his other hand.
"It's the worst I ever had," he said, after a moment "the very worst!"
He sat down, and again he had a fit of coughing, and the sweat started out violently upon his forehead and cheek. When his head at last lay back against the chair, the paroxysm over, a little spot of blood showed and spread upon his white lips. With a pained, shuddering little gasp she caught her handkerchief from her bosom, and, running one hand round his shoulder, quickly and gently caught away the spot of blood, and crumpled the handkerchief in her hand to hide it from him.
"Oh! poor fellow, poor fellow!" she said. "Oh! poor fellow!"
Her eyes filled with tears, and she looked at him with that look which is not the love of a woman for a man, or of a lover for a lover, but that latent spirit of care and motherhood which is in every woman who is more woman than man. For there are women who are more men than women.
For himself, a new fact struck home in him. For the first time since his illness he felt that he was doomed. That little spot of blood in the crumpled handkerchief which had flashed past his eye was the fatal message he had sought to elude for months past. A hopeless and ironical misery shot through him. But he had humour too, and, with the taste of the warm red drop in his mouth still, his tongue touched his lips swiftly, and one hand grasping the arm of the chair, and the fingers of the other dropping on the back of her hand lightly, he said in a quaint, ironical tone:
"'Dead for a ducat!'"
When he saw the look of horror in her face, his eyes lifted almost gaily to hers, as he continued:
"A little brandy, if you can get it, mademoiselle."
"Yes, yes. I'll get some for you--some whiskey!" she said, with frightened, terribly eager eyes.
"Alcide always has some. Don't stir. Sit just where you are." She ran out of the room swiftly--a light-footed, warm-spirited, dramatic little thing, set off so garishly in the bodice with the plush trimming; but she had a big heart, and the man knew it. It was the big-heartedness which was the touch of the man in her that made her companionable to him.
He said to himself when she left him:
"What cursed luck!" And after a pause, he added: "Good-hearted little body, how sorry she looked!" Then he settled back in his chair, his eyes fixed upon her as she entered the room, eager, pale and solicitous. A half-hour later they two were on their way to the farmhouse, the work of despoiling going on in the Manor behind them. Ferrol walked with an easy, half-languid step, even a gay sort of courage in his bearing. The liquor he had drunk brought the colour to his lips. They were now hot and red, and his eyes had a singular feverish brilliancy, in keeping with the hectic flush on his cheek. He had dismissed the subject of his illness almost immediately, and Christine's adaptable nature had instantly responded to his mood.
He asked her questions about the country-side, of their neighbours, of the way they lived, all in an easy, unintrusive way, winning her confidence and provoking her candour.
Two or three times, however, her face suddenly flushed with the memory of the scene in the Manor, and her first real awakening to her social insufficiency; for she of all the family had been least careful to see herself as others might see her. She was vain; she was somewhat of a barbarian; she loved nobody and nobody's opinion as she loved herself and her own opinion. Though, if any people really cared for her, and she for them, they were the Regimental Surgeon and Shangois the notary.
Once, as they walked on, she turned and looked back at the Manor House, but only for an instant. He caught the glance, and said:
"You'll like to live there, won't you?"
"I don't know," she answered almost sharply. "But if the Casimbaults liked it, I don't see why we shouldn't."
There was a challenge in her voice, defiance in the little toss of her head. He liked her spirit in spite of the vanity. Her vanity did not concern him greatly; for, after all, what was he doing here? Merely filling in dark days, living a sober-coloured game out. He had one solitary hundred dollars--no more; and half of that he had borrowed, and half of it he got from selling his shooting-traps and his hunting-watch. He might worry along on that till the end of the game; but he had no money to send his sister in that secluded village two hundred miles away. She had never known how really poor he was; and she had lived in her simple way without want and without any unusual anxiety, save for his health. More than once he had practically starved himself to send money to her. Perhaps also he would have starved others for the same purpose.
"I'll warrant the Casimbaults never enjoyed the Manor as much as I've done that big kitchen in your house," he said, "and I can't see why you want to leave it. Don't you feel sorry you are going to leave the old place? Hadn't you got your own little spots there, and made friends with them? I feel as if I should like to sit down by the side of your big, warm chimney-corner, till the wind came along that blows out the candle."
"What do you mean by 'blowing out the candle'?" she asked.
"Well," he answered, "it means, shut up shop, drop the curtain, or anything you like. It means X Y Z and the grand finale!"
"Oh!" she said, with a little start, as the thing dawned upon her. "Don't speak like that; you're not going to die."
"Give me your handkerchief," he answered. "Give it to me, and I'll tell you--how soon."
She jammed her hand down in her pocket. "No, I won't," she answered. "I won't!"
She never did, and he liked her none the less for that. Somehow, up to this time, he had always thought that he would get well, and to-morrow he would probably think so again; but just for the moment he felt the real truth.
Presently she said (they spoke in French):
"Why is it you like our old kitchen so much? It isn't nearly as nice as the parlour."
"Well, it's a place to live in, anyhow; and I fancy you all feel more at home there than anywhere else."
"I feel just as much at home in the parlour as there," she retorted.
"Oh, no, I think not. The room one lives in the most is the room for any one's money."
She looked at him in a puzzled way. Too many sensations were being born in her all at once; but she did recognise that he was not trying to subtract anything from the pomp of the Lavilettes.
He belonged to a world that she did not know--and yet he was so perfectly at home with her, so idly easygoing.
"Did you ever live in a castle?" she asked eagerly. "Yes," he said, with a dry little laugh. Then, after a moment, with the half-abstracted manner of a man who is recalling a long-forgotten scene, he added: "I lived in the North Tower, looking out on Farcalladen Moor. When I wasn't riding to the hounds myself I could see them crossing to or from the meet. The River Stavely ran between; and just under the window of the North Tower is the prettiest copse you ever saw. That was from one side of the tower. From the other side you looked into the court-yard. As a boy, I liked the court-yard just as well as the moor; for the pigeons, the sparrows, the horses and the dogs were all there. As a man, I liked the moor better. Well, I had jolly good times in Castle Stavely--once upon a time." "Yet, you like our kitchen!" she again urged, in a maze of wonderment.
"I like everything here," he answered; "everything--everything, you understand!" he said, looking meaningly into her eyes.
"Then you'll like the wedding--Sophie's wedding," she answered, in a little confusion.
A half-hour later, he said much the same sort of thing to Sophie, with the same look in his eyes, and only the general purpose, in either case, of being on easy terms with them.