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2: Monsieur

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« on: March 16, 2023, 06:14:05 am »

"La destinée a deux manières de nous briser; en se refusant à nos désirs et en les accomplissant."

To some the night brings wiser or at all events a second counsel. For myself, however, it has never been so. In the prosecution of such small enterprises as have marked a life no more eventful than those around it, I have always awakened in the morning of the same mind as I was when sleep laid its quiet hand upon me. It seems, moreover, that I have made just as many as but no more mistakes than my neighbours. Taking it likewise as a broad generality, the balance seems, in my experience, to tell quite perceptibly in favour of those who make up their minds and hold to that decision firmly, rather than towards such men as seek counsel of the multitude and trim their sail to the tame breeze of precedent.

"Always go straight for a jump," my father had shouted to me once, years ago, while I sat up in a Norfolk ditch and watched my horse disappear through a gap in the next hedge.

I awoke on the morning after the centenary fêtes without any doubt in my mind---being still determined to seek a situation for which I was unfitted.

Having quarrelled with my father, who obstinately refused to pay a few debts such as no young man living in London could, with self-respect, avoid, I was still in the enjoyment of a small annual income left to me by a mother whom I had never seen---upon whose grave in the old, disused churchyard at Hopton I had indeed been taught to lay a few flowers before I fully realised the meaning of such tribute. That my irate old sire had threatened to cut me off with as near an approach to one shilling as an entail would allow had not given me much anxiety. The dear old gentleman had done so a hundred times before---as early, indeed, as my second term at Cambridge, where he had considerably surprised the waiter at the Bull by a display of honest British wrath.

It was, in all truth, necessary that I should do something---should find one of those occupations (heavily salaried) for which, I make no doubt, as many incompetent youths seek to-day as twenty-five years ago.

"What you want," John Turner had said, when I explained my position to him, "is no doubt something that will enable a gentleman to live like a lord."

Now, Monsieur de Clericy was probably prepared to give two hundred pounds a year to his secretary. But it was with Mademoiselle---and I did not even know her Christian name---that I was anxious to treat. What would she give?

It was, I remember, a lovely morning. What weather these Napoleons had, from Austerlitz down to the matchless autumn of 1870!

The address printed in the corner of Monsieur de Clericy's card was unknown to me, although I was passably acquainted with the Paris streets. The Rue des Palmiers was, I learnt, across the river, and, my informant added, lay between the boulevard and the Seine. This was a part of the bright city which Haussmann and Napoleon III had as yet left untouched---a quarter of quiet, gloomy streets and narrow alleys. The sun was shining on the gay river as I crossed the bridge of the Holy Fathers, and the water seemed to dance and laugh in the morning air. The flags were still flying, for these jolly Parisians are always loth to take in their bunting. It was, indeed, a gay world in which I moved that morning.

The Hôtel Clericy I found at the end of the Rue des Palmiers, which short street the great house closed. Indeed, the Rue des Palmiers was but an avenue of houses terminated by the gloomy abode of the Clericys. The house was built behind a high stone wall broken only by a railed doorway.

I rang the bell and heard its tinkle far away within the dwelling. A covered way led from the street to the house, and I followed on the heels of the servant, a smart young Parisian, looking curiously at the little garden which in London would have been forlorn and smutty. Here in Paris bright flowers bloomed healthily and a little fountain plashed with that restful monotony which ever suggests the patios of Spain.

The young man was one of those modern servants who know their business.

"Monsieur's name?" he said, sharply.


We were within the dimly lighted hall, with its scent of old carpets and rusting armour, and he led the way upstairs. He threw open the drawing-room door and mentioned my name in his short, well-trained way. There was but one person in the large room, and she did not hear the man's voice; for she was laughing herself, and was at that moment chasing a small dog around the room. The little animal, which entered gaily into the sport, was worrying a dainty handkerchief in his teeth, and so engaged was he in this destructive purpose that he ran straight into my hands. I rescued the bedraggled piece of cambric and stood upright to find mademoiselle standing before me with mirth and a certain dignified self-possession in her eyes.

"Thank you, Monsieur," she said, taking the handkerchief from my hand. It was evident that she did not recognise me as the stranger who had accosted her father on the previous day.

I explained my business in as few words as possible.

"The servant," I added, "made a mistake in bringing me to this room. I did not mean to trouble Mademoiselle; my business is with M. de Clericy. I am applying for the post of secretary."

She looked at me with a quick surprise, and her eyes lighted on my clothes with some significance, which made me think that perhaps Monsieur de Clericy gave less even than two hundred pounds a year to his amanuensis.

"Ah!" she said, with her thought apparent in her candid eyes. "My father is at present in his study---engaged, I believe, with Monsieur Miste."

"Miste?" I echoed, for the name was no less peculiar than her way of pronouncing it. She seemed to look for some sign that I knew this man.

"Yes---your predecessor."

"Ah! a secretary---a man-machine that writes."

She shook her head with a happy laugh, sinking, as it were, into an air of interest, which gave a sharp feeling that I had perhaps been forestalled in other matters by the man called Miste. She looked at me with such candid eyes, however, that the thought seemed almost a sacrilege, offered gratuitously to innocence and trustfulness. Her face was, indeed, a guarantee that if her maiden fancy had been touched, her heart was at all events free from that deeper feeling which assuredly leaves its mark upon all who suffer it.

The name of Monsieur de Clericy's former secretary in some way grated on my hearing, so that instead of retiring from the presence of mademoiselle as my manners bade me do, I lingered, seeking opportunity to continue the conversation.

"I do not wish to intrude on Monsieur de Clericy," I said. "It is perhaps inexpedient that the new machine should be seen of the old."

Mademoiselle laughed, and again I caught the deep silver note of sympathy in her voice that was so new and yet familiar. In laughter the soul surely speaks.

"The word scarcely describes Monsieur Miste," retorted she.

"Does any single word describe him?"

For a moment she reflected. She was without self-consciousness, and spoke with me, a stranger, as easily as she talked to her father.

"A single word?" she echoed. "Yes---a chimera."

At this moment the sound of voices in the corridor made further delay impossible.

"Perhaps Mademoiselle will allow me to ring for the servant to conduct me to Monsieur de Clericy's study," I said.

"I will show you the room," replied she; "its door is never closed to me. I hear voices, which probably betoken the departure of Monsieur Miste."

The sound, indeed, came distinctly enough to our ears, but it was of one voice only, the benevolent tones of the Vicomte de Clericy, followed by his pleasant laugh. If Miste made reply, the words must have been uttered softly, for I heard them not. I opened the door, and mademoiselle led the way.

A man was descending the broad staircase which I had lately mounted---a slim man, who stepped gently. He did not turn, but continued his way, disappearing in the gloom of the large entrance hall. I gathered a quick impression of litheness and a noiseless footfall, of a sleek, black head, and something stirring within me, which was stronger than curiosity. I wondered why he was quitting the Vicomte's service. Such was my first sight of Charles Miste, and my first knowledge of his existence.

The Vicomte had returned to his room, closing the door behind him, upon which mademoiselle now tapped lightly.

"Father," I heard her say as she entered, "a gentleman wishes to see you."

As I passed her, I caught the scent of some violets she wore in her dress, and the spring-like freshness of the odour seemed a part of herself.

The Vicomte received me so graciously that he and not I might have been the applicant for a situation. Bowing, he peered at me with short-sighted eyes.

"The English gentleman of yesterday," he said, indicating a chair.

"I took you at your word, Monsieur," I replied, "and now apply for the post of secretary."

Taking the chair he placed at my disposal, I awaited his further pleasure. He had seated himself at the writing-table, and was fingering a pen with thoughtfulness or perhaps hesitation. The table, I noticed, was bare of the litter which usually cumbers the desk of a busy man. The calendar lying at his elbow was an ornamental cardboard trifle, embellished with cupids and simpering shepherdesses---such as girls send to each other at the New Year. The surroundings, in fact, were indicative rather of a trifling leisure than of important affairs. The study and writing-table seemed to me to suggest a pleasant fiction of labours, to which the Vicomte retired when he desired solitude and a cigarette. I wondered what my duties might be.

After a pause, the old gentleman raised his eyes---the kindest eyes in the world---to my face, and I perceived beneath his white lashes a great benevolence, in company with a twinkling sense of humour.

"Does Monsieur know anything of the politics of this unfortunate country?" he asked, and he leant forward, his elbows on the bare writing-table, his attitude suggesting the kind encouragement which a great doctor will vouchsafe to a timid patient. The old Frenchman's manner, indeed, aroused in me that which I must be allowed to call my conscience---a cumbrous machine, I admit, hard to set going and soon running down. The sport of this adventure, entered into in a spirit of devilry, seemed suddenly to have shrunk to the dimensions of a somewhat sorry jest. It was, I now reflected, but a poor game to deceive an innocent girl and an old man as guileless. Innocence is a great safeguard.

"Monsieur," I answered, on the spur of the moment, "I have no such qualities as you naturally seek in a secretary. I received my education at Eton and at Cambridge University. If you want a secretary to bowl you a straight ball, or pull a fairly strong oar, I am your man, for I learnt little else. I possess, indeed, the ordinary education of an English gentleman, sufficient Latin to misread an epitaph or a motto, and too little Greek to do me any harm. I have, however, a knowledge of French, which I acquired at Geneva, whither my father sent me when I---er---was sent down from Cambridge. I have again quarrelled with my father. It is an annual affair. We usually quarrel when the hunting ends. This time it is serious. I have henceforth to make my way in the world. I am, Monsieur, what you would call a bad subject."

The tolerance with which my abrupt confession was received only made me the more self-reproachful. The worst of beginning to tell the truth is that it is so hard to stop. I could not inform him that I had fallen in love with a tone in his daughter's voice, with a light in her eyes---I, who had never made serious love to any woman yet. He would only think me mad.

There were in truth many matters with which I ought to have made the Vicomte acquainted. My quarrel with my father, for instance, had originated in my refusal to marry Isabella Gayerson—a young lady with landed estates and a fortune of eighty thousand pounds. I merely informed Monsieur, I confess, that my father and I had fallen out over money matters. Cannot most marriages arranged by loving parents be so described? To my recitation the old gentleman listened with much patience, and when I had partially eased my soul he merely nodded, saying:

"My question is not yet answered, mon ami. Do you know aught of French politics?"

"Absolutely nothing," was my answer, made in all honesty. And I thought I was speaking my own dismissal.

Monsieur de Clericy leant back in his chair with a shrug of the shoulders.

"Well," he muttered, half to himself, "perhaps it is of little consequence. You understand, Monsieur," he continued in a louder tone, looking at me kindly, "I like you. I may say it without impertinence, because I am an old man and you are young. I liked you as soon as I saw you yesterday. The duties for which I require a secretary are light. It is chiefly to be near me when I want you. I have my little estates in the South, in the Bourbonnais, and near to Orleans. I require some one to correspond with my agents, to travel perhaps to my lands when a question arises which the bailiffs cannot settle unaided."

Thus he spoke for some time, and my duties, as he detailed them, sounded astonishingly light. Indeed, he paused occasionally as if seeking to augment them by the addition of trivial household tasks.

"Madame, the Vicomtesse," he said, "will also be glad to avail herself of your services."

The existence of this lady was thus made known to me for the first time. I have wondered since why, in this conversation, we with one accord ignored the first question in such affairs---namely, the salary paid by Monsieur to his secretary.

"I should require you," he said finally, "to live in the Hôtel Clericy while we are in Paris."

Some years earlier, during a hunting expedition in Africa, I had stalked a lion all night and far into the following day. On finally obtaining a sight of my prey, I found him old, disease-stricken and half-blind. The feelings of that moment I have never forgotten. A sensation near akin to it---a sort of shame attaching to a pursuit unworthy of a sportsman---came to me again now, when I was told that I might live under the roof that sheltered Mademoiselle de Clericy.

"You hesitate," said the Vicomte. "I am afraid it is an essential. I must have you always at hand."

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