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16: Exile

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Author Topic: 16: Exile  (Read 37 times)
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« on: March 17, 2023, 10:16:24 am »

"Il y a donc des malheurs tellement bien cachés que ceux qui en sont la cause, ne les devinent même pas."

The first to show kindness to the ladies exiled at Hopton was Isabella Gayerson, who, in response to a letter from the rightful owner of the old manor house, called on Madame de Clericy. Isabella's pale face, her thin-lipped, determined mouth and reserved glance seem to have made no very favourable impression on Madame, who indeed wrote of her as a disappointed woman, nursing some sorrow or grievance in her heart.

With Lucille, however, Isabella speedily inaugurated a friendship, to which Lucille's knowledge of English no doubt contributed largely, for Isabella knew but little French.

"Lucille," wrote Madame to me, for I had returned to London in order to organise a more active pursuit of Charles Miste, "Lucille admires your friend Miss Gayerson immensely, and says that the English demoiselles suggest to her a fine and delicate porcelain---but it seems to me," Madame added, "that the grain is a hard one."

So rapid was the progress of this friendship that the two girls often met either at Hopton or at Little Corton, two miles away, where Isabella, now left an orphan, lived with an elderly aunt for her companion.

Girls, it would appear, possess a thousand topics of common interest, a hundred small matters of mutual confidence, which conduce to a greater intimacy than men and boys ever achieve. In a few weeks Lucille and Isabella were at Christian names, and sworn allies, though any knowing aught of them would have inclined to the suspicion that here, at all events, the confidences were not mutual, for Isabella Gayerson was a woman in a thousand in her power of keeping a discreet counsel. I, who have been intimate with her since childhood, can boast of no great knowledge to this day of her inward hopes, thoughts and desires.

The meetings, it would appear, took place more often at Hopton than in Isabella's home.

"I like Hopton," she said to Lucille one day, in her quiet and semi-indifferent way. "I have many pleasant associations in this house. The squire was always kind to me."

"And I suppose you played in these sleepy old rooms as a child," said Lucille, looking round at the portraits of dead and gone Howards, whose mistakes were now forgotten. "Yes."

Lucille waited, but the conversation seemed to end there naturally. Isabella had nothing more to tell of those bygone days. And, unlike other women, when she had nothing to say she remained silent.

"Did you know Mr. Howard's mother?" asked Lucille presently. "I have often wondered what sort of woman she must have been."

"I did not know her," was the answer, made more openly. It was only in respect to herself that Isabella cultivated reticence. It is so easy to be candid about one's neighbour's affairs. "Neither did he---it was a great misfortune."

"Is it not always a great misfortune?"

"Yes---but in this case especially so."

"How? What do you mean, Isabella?" asked Lucille, in her impulsive way. "You are so cold and reserved. Are all Englishwomen so? It is so difficult to drag things out of you."

"Because there is nothing to drag."

"Yes, there is. I want to know why it was such a special misfortune that Mr. Howard should never have known his mother. You may not be interested in him, but I am. My mother is so fond of him---my father trusted him."

"Ah!"

"There, again," cried Lucille, with a laugh of annoyance. "You say 'Ah!' and it means nothing. I look at your face and it says nothing. With us it is different---we have a hundred little exclamations---look at mother when she talks---but in England when you say 'Ah!' you seem to mean nothing.."

Lucille laughed and looked at Isabella, who only smiled.

"Well?"

"Well," answered Isabella, reluctantly, "if Mr. Howard's mother had lived he might have been a better man."

"You call him Mr. Howard," cried Lucille, darting into one of those side issues by which women so often reach their goal. "Do you call him so to his face?"

"No."

"What do you call him?" asked Lucille, with the persistence of a child on a trifle.

"Dick."

"And yet you do not like him?"

"I have never thought whether I like him or not---one does not think of such questions with people who are like one's own family."

"But surely," said Lucille, "one cannot like a person who is not good?"

"Of course not," answered the other, with her shadowy smile. "At least it is always so written in books."

After this qualified statement Isabella sat with her firm white hands clasped together in idleness on her lap. She was not a woman to fill in the hours with the trifling occupation of the work-basket, and yet was never aught but womanly in dress, manner, and, as I take it, thought. Lucille's fingers, on the contrary, were never still, and before she had lived at Hopton a fortnight she had half a dozen small protégées in the village for whom she fashioned little garments.

It was she who broke the short silence---her companion seemed to be waiting for that or for something else.

"Do you think," she asked, "that mother trusts Mr. Howard too much? She places implicit faith in all he says or does---just as my father did when he was alive."

Isabella---than whom none was more keenly alive to my many failings---paused before she answered, in her measured way:

"It all depends upon his motive in undertaking the management of your affairs."

"Oh---he is paid," said Lucille, rather hurriedly. "He is paid, of course."

"This house is his; the land, so far as you can see from any of the windows, is his also. He has affairs of his own to manage, which he neglects. A mere salary seems an insufficient motive for so deep an interest as he displays."

Lucille did not answer for some moments. Indeed, her needlework seemed at this moment to require careful attention.

"What other motive can he have?" she asked at length, indifferently.

"I do not understand the story of the large fortune that slipped so unaccountably through his fingers," murmured Isabella, and her hearer's face cleared suddenly.

"Alphonse Giraud's fortune?"

"Yes," said Isabella, looking at her companion with steady eyes, "Monsieur Giraud's fortune."

"It was stolen, as you know---for I have told you about it---by my father's secretary, Charles Miste."

"Yes; and Dick Howard says that he will recover it," laughed Isabella.

"Why not?"

"Why not, indeed? He will have good use for it. He has always been a spendthrift."

"What do you mean?" cried Lucille, laying down her work. "What can you mean, Isabella?"

"Nothing," replied the other, who had risen, and was standing by the mantelpiece looking down at the wood fire with one foot extended to its warmth. "Nothing---only I do not understand."

It would appear that Isabella's lack of comprehension took a more active form than that displayed in the conversation reported, tant bien que mal, from subsequent hearsay. Indeed, it has been my experience that when a woman fails to comprehend a mystery---whether it be her own affair or not---it is rarely for the want of trying to sift it.

That Isabella Gayerson made further attempt to discover my motives in watching over Madame de Clericy and Lucille was rendered apparent to me not very long afterwards. It was, in fact, in the month of November, while Paris was still besieged, and rumours of Commune and Anarchy reached us in tranquil England, that I had the opportunity of returning in small part the hospitality of Alphonse Giraud.

Wounded and taken prisoner during the disastrous retreat upon the capital, my friend obtained after a time his release under promise to take no further part in the war, a promise the more freely given that his hurt was of such a nature that he could never hope to swing a sword in his right hand again.

This was forcibly brought home to me when I met Giraud at Charing Cross station, when he extended to me his left hand.

"The other I cannot offer you," he cried, "for a sausage-eating Uhlan, who smelt shockingly of smoke, cut the tendons of it."

He lifted the hand hidden in a black silk handkerchief worn as a sling, and swaggered along the platform with a military air and bearing far above his inches.

We dined together, and he passed that night in my rooms in London, where I had a spare bed. He evinced by his every word and action that spontaneous affection which he had bestowed upon me. We had, moreover, a merry evening, and only once, so far as I remember, did he look at me with a grave face.

"Dick," he then said, "can you lend me a thousand francs? I have not one sou."

"Nor I," was my reply. "But you can have a thousand francs."

"The Vicomtesse writes me that you are supplying them with money during the present standstill in France. How is that?" he said, putting the notes I gave him into his purse.

"I do not know," I answered; "but I seem to be able to borrow as much as I want. I am what you call in Jewry. I have mortgaged everything, and am not quite sure that I have not mortgaged you."

We talked very gravely of money, and doubtless displayed a vast ignorance of the subject. All that I can remember is, that we came to no decision, and laughingly concluded that we were both well sped down the slope of Avernus.

It had been arranged that we should go down to Hopton the following day, where Giraud was to pass a few weeks with the ladies in exile. And I thought---for Giraud was transparent as the day---that the wounded hand, the bronze of battle-field and camp, and the dangers lived through, aroused a hope that Lucille's heart might be touched. For myself, I felt that none of these were required, and was sure that Giraud's own good qualities had already won their way.

"She can, at all events, not laugh at this," he said, lifting the hurt member, "or ridicule our great charge. Oh, Dick, mon ami, you have missed something," he cried, to the astonishment of the porters in Liverpool Street station. "You have missed something in life, for you have never fought for France! Mon Dieu!---to hear the bugle sound the charge---to see the horses, those brave beasts, throw up their heads as they recognised the call---to see the faces of the men! Dick, that was life---real life! To hear at last the crash of the sabres all along the line, like a butler throwing his knife-box down the back stairs."

We reached Hopton in the evening, and I was not too well pleased to find that Isabella had been invited to dine, "to do honour," as Lucille said, to a "hero of the great retreat."

"We knew also," added Madame, addressing me, "that such old friends as Miss Gayerson and yourself would be glad to meet."

And Isabella gave me a queer smile.

During dinner the conversation was general and mostly carried on in English, in which tongue Alphonse Giraud discovered a wealth of humour. In the drawing-room I had an opportunity of speaking to Madame de Clericy of her affairs, to which report I also begged the attention of Lucille.

It appeared to me that there was in the atmosphere of my own home some subtle feeling of distrust or antagonism against myself, and once I thought I intercepted a glance of understanding exchanged by Lucille and Isabella. We were at the moment talking of Giraud's misfortunes, which, indeed, that stricken soldier bore with exemplary cheerfulness.

"What is," he asked, "the equivalent of our sou when that coin is used as the symbol of penury?" and subsequently explained to Isabella with much vivacity that he had not a brass farthing in the world.

During the time that I spoke to Madame of her affairs, Alphonse and Isabella were engaged in a game of billiards in the hall, where stood the table; but their talk seemed of greater interest than the game, for I heard no sound of the balls.

The ladies retired early, Isabella passing the night at Hopton, and Alphonse and I were left alone with our cigars. In a few moments I was aware that the feeling of antagonism against myself had extended itself to Alphonse Giraud, who smoked in silence, and whose gaiety seemed suddenly to have left him. Not being of an expansive nature, I omitted to tax Giraud with coldness---a proceeding which would, no doubt, have been wise towards one so frank and open.

Instead I sat smoking glumly, and might have continued silent till bedtime had not a knocking at the door aroused us. The snow was lying thickly on the ground, and the flakes drove into the house when I opened the door, expecting to admit the coast guardsman, who often came for help or a messenger in times of shipwreck. It was, however, a lad who stood shaking himself in the hall---a telegraph messenger from Yarmouth, who, having walked the whole distance, demanded six shillings for his pains, and received ten, for it was an evil night.

I opened the envelope, and read that the message had been despatched that evening by the manager of a well-known London bank:

"Draft for five thousand pounds has been presented for acceptance---compelled to cash it to-morrow morning."

"Miste is astir at last," I said, handing the message to Giraud.

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