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4: Disqualified

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« on: March 16, 2023, 08:16:03 am »

"Rêver c'est le bonheur; attendre c'est la vie."

The Vicomte de Clericy's answer was favourable to my suit, and I duly received permission to install myself in the apartments lately vacated by Charles Miste---whoever he may have been.

"And what, sir, is to become of me?" inquired my servant, when I instructed him to pack my clothes and made known to him my movements in the immediate future. I had forgotten Loomer. A secretary could scarcely come into residence attended by a valet, rejoicing in the usual direct or indirect emoluments, and possessing that abnormal appetite which only belongs to the man servant living in the kitchen. I told him, therefore, that his future was entirely his own, and that while his final fate was unquestionable, the making of his earthly career remained, for the present, in his own hands. In fact, I gave him permission to commence at once his descent to that bourne whither, I feared, his footsteps would tend.

Mr. Loomer was good enough to evince signs of emotion, and from a somewhat confused speech, I gathered that he refused to go to Avernus until he could make the journey in my service and at my heels. Ultimately it was agreed, however, that he should seek a temporary situation---he was a man of many talents, and as handy in the stable as in a gentleman's dressing-room---and remain therein until I should require his services again. As it happened, I had sufficient ready cash to pay him his wages, with an additional sum to compensate for the brevity of his notice to quit a sorry service. He took the money without surprise. It is surely a sign of good breeding to receive one's due with no astonishment.

"Can't you keep me on, sir?" he pleaded a last time, when I had proved by a gift of a pair of hunting boots (which were too small for me) that we really were about to part.

"My good Loomer, I am going into service myself. I always said I could black a boot better than you."

As I left the room I heard the worthy domestic mutter something about "pretty work," and "a Howard of Hopton," and made no doubt that he regretted less the fall of my ancestral dignity than the loss to himself of a careless and easily robbed master. At all events I had been under the impression that I possessed a fuller store of linen than that which emerged from my travel-stained trunks when these were unpacked later in the day in the Rue des Palmiers.

As for that matter of ancestral dignity, it gave me no trouble. Such a possession comes, I think, to little harm while a man keeps it in his own hands, and only falls to pieces when it gets into the grasp of a bad woman. Have we not seen half a dozen, nay, a dozen, such débâcles in our own time? And I contend that the degenerate scion of a great house who goes to the wrong side of the footlights for his wife is a criminal, and deserves all that may befall him. I bade my friend, John Turner, farewell, he standing stoutly in his smoking-room after luncheon, and prophesying a discouraging and darksome future for one so headstrong.

"You're going to the devil," he said, "though you think you are running after an angel."

"I am going to earn my own livelihood," answered I, with a laugh, lighting the last excellent cigar I was to have from his box for some time, "and make my idle ancestors turn in their graves. I am going to draw emoluments of not less than one hundred and fifty pounds per annum."

I drove across the river with my simple baggage, and was in due course installed in my apartments. With these there was no fault to find---indeed, they were worthy of a better inmate. A large and airy bedroom looking out over the garden where the foliage, as I have said, had none of the mournful sables worn by the trees in London. The room was beautifully furnished. Even one who knew more of saddles than of Buhl and Empire could see that at a glance. Moreover, I noted that every ornament or handle of brass shone like gold.

"Madame's eyes have been here," thought I; "the clever eyes."

Adjacent to the bedroom was the study, which the Vicomte had pointed out as being assigned to his secretary---adjoining as it did the room whither he himself retired at times---not, as I suspected, to engage in any great labours there.

While I was in my bedroom, the smart young Paris servant came in, looked carelessly at my trunks, and was for withdrawing, when I stopped him.

"Is it the buckles you are afraid of?" I said. "Beware rather of the strap."

Therewith I threw my keys on the table before him and went into my study. When I revisited my room later I found everything neatly placed within the drawers and the empty trunks removed.

There were upon my study table a number of books and papers, placed there with such evident intention that I took cognizance of them, judging them to be the accounts rendered by the Vicomte's various estates. So far as a cursory examination could prove it, I judged that we had to deal with but clumsy scoundrels, and in France in those days scoundrels were of fine fleur, I can tell you, while every sort of villainy flourished there.

I was engaged with these books when the Vicomte entered, after knocking at the door. He referred to this courteous precaution by a little gesture indicating the panel upon which his knuckle had sounded.

"You see," he said, "this room is yours. Let us begin as we intend to go on."

If I was a queer secretary, here at all events was an uncommon master.

We fell to work at once, and one or two questions requiring immediate investigation came under discussion. I told him my opinion of his stewards; for I hated to see an old man so cheated. I lived, it will be remembered, in a glass house, and naturally was forever reaching my hand towards a stone. The Vicomte laughed in his kindly way at what he was pleased to term my high-handedness.

"Mon Dieu!" he cried; "what a grasp of steel. But they will be surprised---the bourgeois. I have always been so tolerant. I have ruled by kindness."

"He who rules by kindness is the slave of thieves," I answered, penning the letter we had decided to indite.

The Vicomte laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

"Well," he said, "so long as we begin as we intend to go on."

Such in any case was the beginning, and this my introduction to the duties I had undertaken. They seemed simple enough, and especially so to one who was no novice at the administration of an estate. For my father, in his softer moments---when, in fact, he had been brought to recognize that my vices were at least hereditary---had initiated me into the working of a great landed holding.

At seven o'clock we dined. Mademoiselle wore a white dress with a broad yellow ribbon round her girlish waist. Her sleeves---I suppose it was the fashion of the period---were wide and flowing, and her arms and hands were those of a child.

Madame de Clericy, I remember, did not talk much, saying little more, indeed, than such polite words as her position of hostess rendered necessary. The burden of the conversation rested chiefly with her aged husband, who sustained it simply and cheerily. His chief aim at this, and indeed at all times, seemed to be to establish an agreeable and mutual ease. I have seldom seen in a man, and especially in an old man, such consideration for the feelings of others.

Lucille's clear laugh was ever ready to welcome some little pleasantry, and she joined occasionally in the talk. I listened more to the voice than to the words. Her gay humour found something laughable in remarks that sounded grave enough, and I suddenly felt a hundred years old. As she walked demurely into the dining-room on her father's arm, I thought in truth that she would rather have skipped and run thither.

During dinner mention was made of the Baron Giraud, and I learnt that that financier was among the Vicomte's friends. The name was not new to me, although the Baron's personality was unknown.

The Baron was one of the mushrooms of that day---a nobleman of finance, a true product of Paris, highly respected and honoured there. John Turner knew him well, and was ponderously silent respecting him.

"But why," asked Lucille, when her father had delivered a little oration in favour of the rich man, "does Monsieur Giraud dye his hair?"

There was a little laugh and a silence at this display of naïve wisdom. Then it was Madame who spoke.

"No doubt he feels himself unworthy to wear it white," she said, rising from the table.

I was given to understand that the remainder of the evening was my own, and the Vicomte himself showed me the small staircase descending from the passage between my study and his own, and presented me with a key to the door at the foot of it. This door, he explained, opened to a small passage running between the Rue des Palmiers and the Rue Courte. It would serve me for egress and entry at any time without reference to the servants or disturbance to the house.

"I would not give the key to the first comer," he added.

I learnt later that he and I alone had access to the door of which the servants had no key, nor ever passed there. The same evening I availed myself of my privilege and went to my club, where over a foolish game of chance I won a year's salary.

Such was the beginning of my career in the service of the Vicomte de Clericy. During the weeks that followed I found that there was, in fact, plenty for me to do were the estates to be properly worked---to be administered as we Englishmen are called upon to treat our property to-day, that is to say, like a sponge, to be squeezed to its last drop. I soon discovered that the Vicomte was in the hands of old-fashioned stewards, who, besides feathering their own nests, were not making the best of the land. My conscience, it must be admitted, was at work again---and I had thought it finally vanquished.

Here was I, admitted to the Hôtel Clericy---welcomed in the family circle, and trusted there in the immediate vicinity of and with daily access to as innocent and trusting a soul as ever stepped from a French convent. I---a wolf who had not hitherto even troubled to cover my shaggy sides with a fleece. What could I do? Lucille was so gay, so confiding, in a pretty girlish way which never altered as we came to know each other better. Madame was so placid and easy-going---in her stout black silk dress, with her lace-work. Monsieur de Clericy gave me his confidence so unreservedly---what could I do but lapse into virtue? And I venture to think that many a blacker sheep than myself would have blanched in the midst of so pure a flock.

One evening Madame asked me to join the family circle in the drawing-room. The room was very pretty and homelike---quite unlike our grim drawing-room at Hopton, where my father never willingly set foot since its rightful owner had passed elsewhere. There were flowers in abundance---their scent filled the air---from the Var estate in Provence, which had been Madame's home and formed part of the dot she brought into the diminishing Clericy coffers. Two lamps illuminated the room rather dimly, and a pair of candles stood on the piano.

Monsieur de Clericy played a game at bezique with Madame, who chuckled a good deal at her own mistakes with the cards, and then asked Lucille for some music. The girl sat down at the piano, and there, to her own accompaniment, without the printed score, sang such songs of Provence as tug at the heart strings, one knows not why. There seemed to be a wail in the music---and in slurring, as it were, from one note to the other---a trick such Southern songs demand---I heard the tone I loved.

Madame listened while she worked. The Vicomte dropped gently to sleep. I sat with my elbow on my knee and looked at the carpet. And when the voice rose and fell, I knew that none other had the same message for me.

"You are sad," said Lucille, with a little laugh, "with your face in your hand, comme ça."

And she imitated my position and expression with a merry toss of the head. "Are you thinking of your sins?"

"Yes, Mademoiselle," answered I, truthfully enough.

Many evenings I passed thus in the peaceful family circle---and always Lucille sang those gaily sad little songs of Provence.

The weeks slipped by, and the outer world was busy with great doings, while we in the Rue des Palmiers seemed to stand aside and watch the events go past.

The Emperor---than whom no greater man lived at the middle of the present century---was losing health, and, with that best of human gifts, his grasp over his fellow men. The dogs were beginning to collect---the dogs that are ever in readiness to fall on the stricken lion.

I marvelled to discover how little the Vicomte interested himself in politics. One other discovery only did I make respecting my patron; I found that he loved money.

My conscience, as I have said, was busy at this time, and the burden of my deception began to weigh upon my mind as if I had been a mere schoolboy, and no man of the world. I might, however, have borne the burden easily enough if chance had not favoured the right.

I was one morning writing in Monsieur de Clericy's study, when the door was impetuously thrown open and Lucille came running in. "Ah!" she said, stopping, "only you."

"That is all, Mademoiselle."

She was turning to go when on an impulse of the moment I called to her.

"Mademoiselle!" She turned and slowly came back. With a little laugh she stood in front of me seated at the great table. She took up a quill pen, which I had laid aside a moment earlier, and played with it.

"What are you writing?" she asked, looking down at the papers before me---"your own history?"

As she spoke the pen escaped from her fingers and fell upon my papers, leaving ink stains there.

"There," she cried, with a laugh of mock despair, "I have spoilt your life."

"No; but you have altered its appearance," I answered. "Mademoiselle, I have something to say to you. When I came here I deceived your father. I told him that I was ruined---that my father had disowned me---that I was forced to earn my own livelihood. It was untrue---I shall one day be as rich as your father."

"Then why did you come here?" asked the girl, for a moment grave.

"To be near you."

And she broke into a laugh, shaking her head.

"I saw you in the crowd at the Fête Napoleon---I heard your voice. There is no one in the world like you. I fell in love, Mademoiselle."

Still she laughed, as if I were telling her an amusing story.

"And it is useless," I pursued, somewhat bitterly, perhaps. "I am too old?"

There was a little mirror on the mantelpiece.

She ran and fetched it and held it in front of my face.

"Look," she cried merrily. "Yes, hundreds of years!"

With a laugh and flying skirts she ran from the room.
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