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29: At La Pauline

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Author Topic: 29: At La Pauline  (Read 398 times)
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« on: March 19, 2023, 10:06:24 am »

"Le plus lent à promettre est toujours le plus fidèle à tenir."

The tale was thus told to her whom it most concerned, clearly and without reservation. The details are, however, known to the patient reader, and call for no recapitulation here. When Madame de Clericy heard the end of it---namely, the sad fate of the unfortunate Principe Amadeo and all, save two, on board that steamer---she sat in silence for some moments, and indeed made no comment at any other time. Assuredly none was needed, nor could any human words add to or detract from that infallible Divine judgment which had so ruled our lives.

For when one who is dear to us has forfeited our love by one of those great and sorrowful alterations of the mind, scarce amounting to madness, and yet near akin to it, which, alas! are frequently enough brought about by temptation or an insufficient self control---surely, then, it is only Heaven's kindness that takes from us the erring one and leaves but a brief memory of his fall. Has not a great writer said that a dead sorrow is better than a living one?

I rose to my feet and stood for a moment in the doorway of the summerhouse, intending to leave Madame with her dead grief. But as I crossed the threshold her quiet voice arrested me.

"Mon ami!" she said, and, as I paused without looking round, presently went on---well pleased, perhaps, that I should not see her face.

"One mistake you make in the kindness of your heart, for you are a stern man with a soft heart, as many English are---you grieve too much for me. Of course, it is a sorrow---but it is not the great sorrow. You understand?"

"I think so."

"That came to me many years ago, and was not connected with the Vicomte de Clericy, but with one who had no title beyond that of gentleman---and I think there is none higher. It is an old story, and one that is too often enacted in France, where convenience is placed before happiness and money above affection. My life has been, well---happy. Lucille has made it so. And I have an aim in existence which is in itself a happiness---to make Lucille's life a happy one, to ensure her that which I have missed, and to avoid a mistake made by generation after generation of women---namely, to believe that love comes to us after marriage. It never does so, my friend---never. Tolerance may come, or, at the best, affection---which is making an ornament of brass and setting it up where there should be gold---or nothing."

I stood, half turning my back to Madame, looking down into the valley---not caring to meet the quiet eyes that had looked straight into my heart long ago in the room called the boudoir of the house in the Rue des Palmiers, and had ever since read the thoughts and desires which I had hidden from the rest of the world. Madame knew, without any words of mine, that I also had one object in existence, and that the same as hers---namely, that Lucille's life should be a happy one.

"There is no task so difficult," said Madame, half talking, as I thought, to herself, "unless it be undertaken by the one man who can do it without an effort---no task so difficult as that of making a woman happy. Even her mother cannot be sure of the wisdom of interference. I always remember some words of your friend, John Turner, 'When in doubt, do nothing,' and he is a wise man, I think."

The Vicomtesse was an economist of words, and explained herself no further. We remained for some moments in silence, and it was she who at length broke it.

"Thank you," she said, "for all your thought and care in verifying the details of the story you have told me."

"I might have kept it from you, Madame," answered I, "and thus spared you some sorrow. Perhaps you had been happier in ignorance."

"I think, my dear friend, I am better knowing it. Shall we tell Lucille?"

I turned and looked at Madame, whose manner bespoke my attention. There was more in the words than a single question---indeed, I thought there were many questions.

"That shall be as you decide."

"I ask your opinion, mon ami?"

"I am not in favour of keeping any secrets from Mademoiselle."

For a time Madame seemed lost in thought.

"If you go to the chateau," she said at length, taking up her lace-work as she spoke, "you will find Lucille either in the garden or the chapel, where she daily tends the flowers. Tell her anything---you please."

I left Madame and walked slowly across the garden. Lucille was not among the gay flower-borders. I passed by the old sun-dial and into the shade of the trees that stood by the moat, where the frogs chattered incessantly in the cool shadows. I never hear the sound now but something stirs in my breast, which is not regret nor yet entire happiness, but that strange blending of the two which is far above the mere earthly understanding of the latter state.

In the shadow of the cypress trees I approached the chapel quietly, of which the door and windows were alike thrown open. Standing in the cool shadow of the porch I saw that Lucille was not busy with the flowers, but having completed her task, knelt for a moment before the altar, raising to heaven a face surely as pure as that of any angel there.

I sat down in the porch to wait.

Presently Lucille rose from her knees and turning came towards me. I thought, as I always did on seeing her after an absence short or long, that I had never really loved her until that moment.

I looked for some expression of surprise in her eyes, but it seemed that she must have known who had entered before she turned. Instead I saw in her face a strange new tenderness that set my heart beating. She gave me her hand with a gesture of shyness that was likewise unknown to me.

"Why do you look at me like that?" she asked, sharply.

"I was wondering what your thought was as you came towards me, Mademoiselle."

"Ah!" she answered, with a shake of the head.

"It could not have been that you were glad to see me here? Yet, one would almost have thought---"

She broke into a light laugh.

"It is so easy to think wrong," she said.

I had sat down again, hoping that she would do the same; but she remained standing a few yards away from me, her shoulder against the grey old wall of the porch. She was looking out into the shadow of the trees, and to be near her was a greater happiness than I can tell.

"Do you find it easy to think wrong, Mademoiselle?"

"Yes," she answered, gently.

"And I also."

We remained silent for a few minutes, and the chatter of the frogs in the moat sounded pleasant and peaceful.

"What have you thought that was wrong?" asked Lucille at length.

"I thought that you loved Alphonse Giraud, and would marry him."

Lucille stood and never looked at me.

"Was I wrong, Mademoiselle?"

"Yes---and I told Alphonse so from the beginning, but he did not believe me until lately."

"I thought it was he," I said.

"No---nor any like him. If ever I did---either of those things---it would need to be a man---one of strong will who would be master, not only of me, but of men; one whom I should always think wiser and stronger and braver than any other."

I looked at her, and saw nothing but her profile and the gleam of a sun-ray on her hair.

"Am I a man, Mademoiselle?"

There was a silence, a long one, I thought it.

"Yes," she answered at last, barely audible; and as she spoke stepped out into the broken shade of the cypress trees. She went a few paces away from me---then came slowly back and stood before me. Her face was quite colourless, but there was that in her eyes that brings heaven down to earth.

"Me voilà," she said, with a queer little gesture of self-abandonment. "Me voilà, if you want me."


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