The Pomp of the Lavilettes by Gilbert Parker
It was about ten o'clock. Lights were burning in every window. At a table in the dining-room sat Monsieur and Madame Lavilette, the father of Magon Farcinelle, and Shangois, the notary. The marriage contract was before them. They had reached a point of difficulty. Farcinelle was stipulating for five acres of river-land as another item in Sophie's dot.
The corners tightened around Madame's mouth. Lavilette scratched his head, so that the hair stood up like flying tassels of corn. The land in question lay next a portion of Farcinelle's own farm, with a river frontage. On it was a little house and shed, and no better garden-stuff grew in the parish than on this same five acres.
"But I do not own the land," said Lavilette. "You've got a mortgage on it," answered Farcinelle. "Foreclose it."
"Suppose I did foreclose; you couldn't put the land in the marriage contract until it was mine."
The notary shrugged his shoulder ironically, and dropped his chin in his hand as he furtively eyed the two men. Farcinelle was ready for the emergency. He turned to Shangois.
"I've got everything ready for the foreclosure," said he. "Couldn't it be done to-night, Shangois?"
"Hardly to-night. You might foreclose, but the property couldn't be Monsieur Lavilette's until it is duly sold under the mortgage."
"Here, I'll tell you what can be done," said Farcinelle. "You can put the mortgage in the contract as her dot, and, name of a little man! I'll foreclose it, I can tell you. Come, now, Lavilette, is it a bargain?" Shangois sat back in his chair, the fingers of both hands drumming on the table before him, his head twisted a little to one side. His little reflective eyes sparkled with malicious interest, and his little voice said, as though he were speaking to himself:
"Excuse, but the land belongs to the young Vanne Castine--eh?"
"That's it," exclaimed Farcinelle.
"Well, why not give the poor vaurien a chance to take up the mortgage?"
"Why, he hasn't paid the interest in five years!" said Lavilette.
"But--ah--you have had the use of the land, I think, monsieur. That should meet the interest." Lavilette scowled a little; Farcinelle grunted and laughed.
"How can I give him a chance to pay the mortgage?" said Lavilette. "He never had a penny. Besides, he hasn't been seen for five years."
A faint smile passed over Shangois's face. "Yesterday," he said, "he had not been seen for five years, but to-day he is in Bonaventure."
"The devil!" said Lavilette, dropping a fist on the table, and staring at the notary; for he was not present in the afternoon when Castine passed by.
"What difference does that make?" snarled Farcinelle. "I'll bet he's got nothing more than what he went away with, and that wasn't a sou markee!"
A provoking smile flickered at the corners of Shangois's mouth, and he said, with a dry inflection, as he dipped and redipped his quill pen in the inkhorn:
"He has a bear, my friends, which dances very well." Farcinelle guffawed. "St. Mary!" said he, slapping his leg, "we'll have the bear at the wedding, and I'll have that farm of Vanne Castine's. What does he want of a farm? He's got a bear. Come, is it a bargain? Am I to have the mortgage? If you don't stick it in, I'll not let my boy marry your girl, Lavilette. There, now, that's my last word."
"'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, nor his wife, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is his,"' said the notary, abstractedly, drawing the picture of a fat Jew on the paper before him.
The irony was lost upon his hearers. Madame Lavilette had been thinking, however, and she saw further than her husband.
"It amounts to the same thing," she said. "You see it doesn't go away from Sophie; so let him have it, Louis."
"All right," responded monsieur at last, "Sophie gets the acres and the house in her dot."
"You won't give young Vanne Castine a chance?" asked the notary. "The mortgage is for four hundred dollars and the place is worth seven hundred!"
No one replied. "Very well, my Israelites," added Shangois, bending over the contract.
An hour later, Nicolas Lavilette was in the big storeroom of the farmhouse, which was reached by a covered passage from the hall between the kitchen and the dining-room. In his off-hand way he was getting out some flour, dried fruit and preserves for the cook, who stood near as he loaded up her arms. He laughingly thrust a string of green peppers under her chin, and added a couple of sprigs of summer-savoury, then suddenly turned round, with a start, for a peculiar low whistle came to him through the half-open window. It was followed by heavy stertorous breathing.
He turned back again to the cook, gaily took her by the shoulders, and pushed her to the door. Closing it behind her, he shot the bolt and ran back to the window. As he did so, a hand appeared on the windowsill, and a face followed the hand.
"Ha! Nicolas Lavilette, is that you? So, you know my leetla whistle again!"
Nicolas's brow darkened. In old days he and this same Vanne Castine had been in many a scrape together, and Vanne, the elder, had always borne the responsibility of their adventures. Nicolas had had enough of those old days; other ambitions and habits governed him now. He was not exactly the man to go back on a friend, but Castine no longer had any particular claims to friendship. The last time he had heard Vanne's whistle was a night five years before, when they both joined a gang of river-drivers, and made a raid on some sham American speculators and surveyors and labourers, who were exploiting an oil-well on the property of the old seigneur. The two had come out of the melee with bruised heads, and Vanne with a bullet in his calf. But soon afterwards came Christine's elopement with Vanne, of which no one knew save her father, Nicolas, Shangois and Vanne himself. That ended their compact, and, after a bitter quarrel, they had parted and had never met nor seen each other till this very afternoon.
"Yes, I know your whistle all right," answered Nicolas, with a twist of the shoulder.
"Aren't you going to shake hands?" asked Castine, with a sort of sneer on his face.
Nicolas thrust his hands down in his pockets. "I'm not so glad to see you as all that," he answered, with a contemptuous laugh.
The black eyes of the bear-leader were alive with anger.
"You're a damn' fool, Nic Lavilette. You think because I lead a bear-- eh? Pshaw! you shall see. I am nothing, eh? I am to walk on! Nic Lavilette, once he steal the Cure's pig and--"
"See you there, Castine, I've had enough of that," was the half-angry, half-amused interruption. "What are you after here?"
"What was I after five years ago?" was the meaning reply.
Lavilette's face suddenly flushed with fury. He gripped the window with both hands, and made as if he would leap out; but beside Castine's face there appeared another, with glaring eyes, red tongue, white vicious teeth, and two huge claws which dropped on the ledge of the window in much the same way as did Lavilette's.
There was a moment's silence as the man and the beast looked at each other, and then Castine began laughing in a low, sneering sort of way.
"I'll shoot the beast, and I'll break your neck if ever I see you on this farm again," said Lavilette, with wild anger.
"Break my neck--that's all right; but shoot this leetla Michael! When you do that you will not have to wait for a British bullet to kill you. I will do it with a knife--just where you can hear it sing under your ear!"
"British bullet!" said Lavilette, excitedly; "what about a British bullet--eh--what?"
"Only that the Rebellion's coming quick now," answered Castine, his manner changing, and a look of cunning crossing his face. "You've given your name to the great Papineau, and I am here, as you see."
"You--you--what have you got to do with the Revolution? with Papineau?"
"Pah! do you think a Lavilette is the only patriot! Papineau is my friend, and--"
"My friend. I am carrying his message all through the parishes. Bon'venture is the last--almost. The great General Papineau sends you a word, Nic Lavilette--here."
He drew from his pocket a letter and handed it over. Lavilette tore it open. It was a captain's commission for M. Nicolas Lavilette, with a call for money and a company of men and horses.
"Maybe there's a leetla noose hanging from the tail of that, but then-- it is the glory--eh? Captain Lavilette--eh?" There was covert malice in Castine's voice. "If the English whip us, they won't shoot us like grand seigneurs, they will hang us like dogs."
Lavilette scarcely noticed the sneer. He was seeing visions of a captain's sword and epaulettes, and planning to get men, money and horses together--for this matter had been brooding for nearly a year, and he had been the active leader in Bonaventure.
"We've been near a hundred years, we Frenchmen, eating dirt in the country we owned from the start; and I'd rather die fighting to get back the old citadel than live with the English heel on my nose," said Lavilette, with a play-acting attempt at oratory.
"Yes, an' dey call us Johnny Pea-soups," said Castine, with a furtive grin. "An' perhaps that British Colborne will hang us to our barn doors --eh?"
There was silence for a moment, in which Lavilette read the letter over again with gloating eyes. Presently Castine started and looked round.
"What's that?" he said in a whisper. "I heard nothing."
"I heard the feet of a man--yes."
They both stood moveless, listening. There was no sound; but, at the same time, the Hon. Mr. Ferrol had the secret of the Rebellion in his hands.
A moment later Castine and his bear were out in the road. Lavilette leaned out of the window and mused. Castine's words of a few moments before came to him:
"That British Colborne will hang us to our barn doors--eh?"
He shuddered, and struck a light.