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24: An Explanation

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Author Topic: 24: An Explanation  (Read 39 times)
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« on: March 18, 2023, 12:07:00 pm »

"La discretion défend de questionner, la délicatesse défend même de deviner."

We were a quiet party that evening, Madame having decided to ask no one to meet us. It was like a piece of the old Paris life, for all had met for better or worse in that city, and spoke the language of the once brilliant capital.

Madame insisted that I should take the head of the table, she herself occupying a chair at the foot, which had remained vacant as long as I could remember. So I sat for the first time in the seat of my ancestors, whence my father had issued his choleric mandates, only, I fear, to be answered as hotly.

"You are quiet, Monsieur," said Lucille, who sat at my right hand, and I thought her glance searched my face in a way that was new.

"Say he is dull," put in Alphonse, whose gaiety was at high-water mark. "Ce cher Dick—he is naturally so."

And he laughed at me with his old look of affection.

"Mademoiselle means that I am duller than usual," I suggested.

"No," said Lucille, "I meant what I said."

"As always?" inquired Alphonse, in a low voice aside.

"As always," she answered, gravely. And I think she only spoke the truth.

We did not sit long over our wine, and John Turner reserved his cigar until a later opportunity.

"I'll play you a game of billiards," he said, looking at me.

In the drawing-room we found Lucille already; at the piano.

"I have some new songs," she said, "from the Basque country. I wonder if you will prefer them to the old."

I was crossing the room towards Madame, and a silence made me pause and look towards the piano. Lucille was addressing me---and no doubt I was clumsy enough to betray my surprise.

"I think I shall prefer the old ones, Mademoiselle," I answered.

She was fingering the pages carelessly, and Alphonse, who was always quick at such matters, stepped forward.

"As the songs are new the pages will require turning."

"Thank you," answered Lucille, rather coldly as I thought, and Madame looked at me with a queer expression of impatience, as if I had done something amiss. She took up her book and presently closed her eyes. John Turner did the same, and I, remembering that he was a heavy breather, went up to him.

"I am ready to beat you at billiards," I said.

Lucille and Alphonse were so much engaged at the piano as to be apparently oblivious to our departure. I suppose that they were grateful to us in their hearts for going.

My friend did not play long or skilfully, and I, like all ne'er-do-wells, played a fair game in those days.

"Yes," he said, when handsomely beaten, "you evidently play on Sundays. Let us sit down and smoke."

I could not help noticing that the music had ceased. Lucille and Alphonse were probably talking together in low voices at the piano while Madame kindly slept.

"Don't scowl at me like that," said John Turner, "but take one of these cigars."

We sat down, and smoked for some time in silence.

"It is one thing," said my companion at length, "to give a man a fair chance, and another to throw away your own."

"What do you mean?"

"Why marry Mademoiselle to a weak-kneed fellow like Giraud?"

"He is not a weak-kneed fellow," I interrupted, "and can sit a horse as well as any man in the county."

"Life does not consist of sitting on horses."

"And he has proved himself a brave soldier."

"A man may be a brave soldier and make a poor fight of his life," persisted Turner. "Besides, it is against her will."

"Against her will?"

"Yes," said John Turner. "She wants to marry quite a different man."

"That may be," answered I, "but it is none of my business. I have no influence with Mademoiselle, who is one of my enemies. I have many."

"No---you haven't," said Turner, stoutly. "You have but one, and she is a clever one. Isabella Gayerson is a dangerous foe, my boy. She has poisoned the minds of Lucille and Alphonse against you. She has tried to do the same by the Vicomtesse, and failed. She encouraged and harboured Devar in order to annoy you. You and I start for Paris to-morrow afternoon. Take my advice and ride over to Little Corton to-morrow morning. See Isabella, and have it out with her. Talk to her as you would to a man. Life would be so much simpler if people would only recognise that sex is only a small part of it. Tell her you will see her d----d before you marry her, or words to that effect. It is all a matter of vanity or money. I'm going to bed. Good-night. My apologies to the ladies."

He took his candle, and left me with half a cigar to smoke.

I was up betimes the next morning, and set off on horseback through the quiet lanes soon after breakfast. Little Corton stands a mile inland, and two miles nearer to Lowestoft than the old Manor House of Hopton. Between the houses there is little pasture land, and I rode through fresh green corn with the dew still on it. The larks---and they are nowhere so numerous as on our sea-bound uplands---were singing a blithe chorus. The world was indeed happy that May morning.

The sight of the homely red walls of Little Corton nestling among the elms brought to my mind a hundred memories of the past days, wherein Isabella's parents had ever accorded a welcome to myself---a muddy-booted boy then, with but an evil reputation in the country-side.

Isabella had gone out, they told me, but as she had taken neither hat nor gloves, the servants opined that she could not be far away. I went in search, and found her in the beech wood. She had taken her morning letters there, and read them as she walked, her dress stirring the dead leaves. She did not hear my footstep until I was close upon her.

"Ah! have you come to tell me that Lucille and Alphonse are engaged?" she asked, without even bidding me good morning. In her eyes, usually quiet and reserved, there was a look of great expectancy.

"No."

She folded her letters slowly, and as we walked side by side her quiet eyes came slantwise to my face in a searching glance. She asked no other question, however, and left the burthen of the silence with me. There was a rustic seat near to us, and with one accord we went to it and sat down. Isabella seemed to be breathless, I know not why, and her bodice was stirred by the rapidity of her breathing. I noticed again that my old playmate was prettier than I had ever suspected---a strongly-built woman, upright and of a fine, graceful figure.

"Don't beat about the bush," John Turner had advised, and I remembered his words now.

"Isabella," I said, awkwardly enough, as I stirred the dead leaves with my whip, "Isabella, do you know the terms of my father's will?"

She did not answer at once, and, glancing in her direction, I saw that she had flushed like a schoolgirl.

"Yes," she answered at length.

"I am penniless unless you marry me."

"Yes---I know."

Her voice was quiet and composed. Isabella was younger than I, but in her presence I always felt myself her inferior and junior, as, no doubt, I had always been in mind though not in years.

"You have always been my enemy, Isabella."

"Why should I be that?" she asked.

"I suppose it is on account of the squire's will."

"I care nothing for that."

"Then, if you are not my enemy, if you do not hate me---I do not recollect doing you an injury---if you do not hate me, why have you poisoned Lucille's mind against me and made Alphonse distrust me? Why did you encourage Devar, whom you knew to be my enemy?"

"So you have ridden over in order to bring these charges against me," answered Isabella, in her coldest voice; "and you came at a time when you knew you would find me alone, so as to do it the more effectually."

"I am letting you know that I am aware that you dislike me, and want to be told why. Do you remember long ago at the gate over there leading to Drake's Spinney? It was the first time you had put your hair up and had a long dress on. I was a clumsy oaf and did not know that those things made such a difference. I gave you a push as you were climbing over, and you fell."

"Yes," said Isabella; "I remember."

"You hurt yourself, and cried, and said you hated me then. And I believe you did, for you have never been the same since. That was fourteen years ago, Isabella---my first year at Cambridge. You were eighteen then."

"Yes," answered Isabella, in a chilly voice. "You have all your dates very correct, and a simple addition sum will tell you that I am thirty-two now---a middle-aged woman, whose hair is turning grey! Thirty-two!"

And I was too stupid, or too wise, to tell her that she did not look it.

"I do not know," I said instead, "why you should have turned against me then, and remembered so long a mere boyish jest; for I thought we were to be good friends always---as we had been---and never dreamt that a few hairpins could make us different."

Isabella sat with her still, white hands clasped in her lap, and looked towards the gate that had caused this childish breach; but I could not see the expression on her face.

"My father," I went on, determined to speak out that which was in my mind, "had no business to make such a will, which could only lead to trouble. And I should have been a scoundrel had I sacrificed your happiness to my own cupidity---or, rather, had I attempted to do so. You might have thought it your duty to take me, Isabella, had I asked you to, for the sake of the money---though you have always spared me any doubts as to your opinion of me. You have always known my faults, and been less charitable towards them than anyone else. I should have been a scoundrel indeed had I asked you to sacrifice yourself."

She sat quite still, and was breathing quietly now.

"So I came to talk it over with you---as old friends, as if we were two men."

"Which we are not," put in Isabella, with her bitter laugh; and God knows what she meant.

"We were placed in an impossible position by being thus asked to marry against our will. I did not ever think of you in that way---think of loving you, I mean. And you have made it plain enough, of course, that you do not love me. On the contrary----"

"Of course," she echoed, in a queer, tired voice. "On the contrary."

I somehow came to a stop, and sat mutely seeking words. At last, however, I broke the silence.

"Then," I said, making an effort to speak lightly and easily, "we understand each other now."----

"Yes," she answered; "we understand each other now."

I rose, for there seemed nothing more to be said, and yet feeling that I was no further on---that there was something yet misunderstood between us.

"And we are friends again, Isabella."

I held out my hand, and, after a momentary pause, she placed her fingers in it. They were cold.---"Yes, I suppose so," she said, and her lips were quivering.

I left her slowly, and with a feeling of reluctance. My way lay over the gate, where fourteen years earlier I had made that mistake. As I climbed it, I looked back. Isabella had turned sideways on the seat, and her face was hidden in her arms folded on the back of it. She seemed to be weeping. I stood for a minute or two in indecision. Then, remembering how she disliked me, went slowly on to the stable, and found my horse.

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