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3: Madame

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Author Topic: 3: Madame  (Read 13 times)
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« on: March 16, 2023, 07:24:32 am »

"En paroles ou en actions, être discret, c'est s'abstenir."

It is to be presumed that the reader knows the usual result of such a tussle with the conscience as that upon which I now entered. At various turning points in a chequered career I have met my conscience thus face to face, and am honest enough to confess that the victory has not always fallen to that ghostly monitor.

After favouring me with his ultimatum, the Vicomte looked at me expectantly. I thought of Mademoiselle de Clericy's presence in that old house. Who was I to turn my back on the good things that the gods gave me? I hate your timid man who looks behind him on an unknown road.

"As Monsieur wills," I said, and with a sigh, almost of relief I thought, my companion rose.

"We will seek the Vicomtesse," he said. "My wife will have pleasure in making your acquaintance. And to-morrow you shall have my answer."

"Ah!" thought I; "the Vicomtesse decides it."

And I followed Monsieur de Clericy towards the door.

"It is half-past eleven," he said, looking at his modest silver watch. "We shall find Madame in her boudoir."

This apartment, it appeared, was situated beyond the drawing-room, of which we now passed the door. Below us was the great square hall, dark and gloomy; for its windows had been heavily barred in the old stirring times, and but little light filtered through the ironwork. At the head of the stairs was a gallery completely surrounding the quadrangle, and from this gallery access was gained to all the dwelling rooms.

The Vicomte tapped at the door of Madame's room, and without waiting for an answer passed in. I, having purposely lingered, did not hear the few words spoken upon the threshold, and only advanced when bidden to do so by my companion.

An elderly lady stood by the window, having just risen from the broad seat thereof, which was littered with the trifles of a lady's work-basket. The Vicomtesse was obviously many years younger than her husband---a trim woman of fifty or thereabouts, with crinkled grey hair and the clear brown complexion of the Provençale. Beneath the grey hair there looked out at me the cleverest eyes I have ever seen in a human head. I bowed, made suddenly aware that I stood in the presence of an individuality, near an oasis---as it were---in the dreary desert of human commonplace. And strange to say, at the same moment my conscience laid itself down to sleep. Madame la Vicomtesse de Clericy was a woman capable of guarding those near and dear to her.

"Monsieur Howard," explained her husband, looking at me, with his white fingers nervously intertwined, "is desirous of filling the post left vacant by the departure of our friend Charles Miste. We have had a little talk on affairs. It is possible that we may come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement. Monsieur Howard naturally wished to be presented to you."

Madame bowed, her clear dark eyes resting almost musingly on my face. She waited for me to speak, whereas nine women out of ten would have broken silence.

"I have explained to Monsieur le Vicomte," I hastened to say, "that I have none of the requisite qualifications for the post, and that my female relatives---my aunts, in fact---looked upon me as a mauvais sujet."

She smiled, and her eyes sought the lace-work held in her busy fingers. Mademoiselle de Clericy had, I remembered, worn a piece of such dainty needlework at her throat on the previous morning.

I learnt to look for that piece of ever-growing lace-work in later days. Madame was never without it, and worked quaint patterns, learnt in a convent on the pine-clad slopes of Var.

"Monsieur Howard," went on the Vicomte, "is a gentleman of position in his own country on the east coast of England. He has, however, had a difference---a difference with his father."

The eyes were raised to my face for a brief moment.

"In the matter of a marriage of convenience," I added, giving the plain truth on the impulse of the moment, or under the influence, perhaps, of Madame de Clericy's glance. Then I recollected that this was a different story from that tale of a monetary difficulty which I had related to Madame's husband ten minutes earlier. I glanced at him to see whether he had noticed the discrepancy, but was instantly relieved of my anxiety, so completely was the old man absorbed in an affectionate and somewhat humble contemplation of his wife. It was easy to see how matters stood in the Clericy household, and I conceived a sudden feeling of relief that so delicate a flower as Mademoiselle de Clericy should have so capable a guardian in the person of her mother. Evil takes that shape in which it is first held up to our vision. Incompetent and careless mothers are in fact criminals. Mademoiselle de Clericy had one near to her who could at all events clothe necessary knowledge in a reassuring garment.

"A marriage of convenience," repeated Madame, speaking for the first time. "It is so easy to be mistaken in such matters, is it not?"

"As easy for the one as for the other, Madame," replied I. "And it was I, and not my father, who was most intimately concerned."

She looked at me with a little upward nod of the head and a slow, wise smile. One never knows whence some women gather their knowledge of the world.

"Monsieur knows Paris?" she asked.

"As an Englishman, Madame."

"Then you only know the worst," was her comment.

She did not ask me to be seated. It was, I suspected, the hour for déjeûner. For this household was evidently one to adhere to old-fashioned customs. There was something homelike about this pleasant lady. Her presence in a room gave to the atmosphere something refined and womanly, which was new to one who, like myself, had lived mostly among men. Indeed, my companions of former days---no saints, I admit---would have been surprised could they have seen me bowing and making congés to this elderly lady like a dancing master. Moreover, the post I sought was lapsing into a domestic situation, for which my antecedents eminently unfitted me, nor did I pretend to think otherwise. Had I reached the age of discretion? Is there indeed such an age? I have seen old men and women who make one doubt it. At thirty-one does a man begin to range himself? "Ah, well!" thought I, "vogue la galère." I had made a beginning, and in Norfolk they do not breed men who leave a quest half accomplished.

For a moment I waited, and Madame seemed to have nothing more to say. I had not at that time, nor indeed have I since, acquired that polish of the world which takes the form of a brilliant, and I suspect insincere, manner in society. I had no compliments ready. I therefore took my leave.

The Vicomte accompanied me to the top of the stairs, and there made sure that the servants were awaiting my departure in the hall.

"To-morrow morning," he said, with a friendly touch on my arm, "you shall have my answer."

With this news then I returned to my comfortable quarters in John Turner's appartement in the Avenue d'Antan. I found that great banker about to partake of luncheon, which was served to him at midday, after the fashion of the country of his adoption. During my walk across the river and through the gardens of the Tuileries---at that time at the height of their splendour---I had not reflected very deeply on the matter in hand. I had thought more of Mademoiselle de Clericy's bright eyes than aught else.

"Good morning," said my host, whom I had not seen before going out. "Where have you been?"

"To the Vicomte de Clericy's."

"The devil you have! Then you are not so stolid as you look."

And he laughed as he shook out his table napkin. His thought was only half with me, for he was looking at the menu.

"Arcachon oysters!" he added; "the best in the world! I hate your bloated natives. Give me a small oyster."

"Give me a dozen," I answered, helping myself from the dish at my elbow.

"And did the Vicomte kick you downstairs?" asked my host, as he compounded in the dip of his plate a wonderful mixture of vinegar and spices.

"No. He is going to consider my application, and will give me his answer to-morrow morning."

John Turner set down the vinegar bottle and looked across the table at me with an expression of wonder on his broad face.

"Well, I never! Did you see Madame? Clever woman, Madame. Gives excellent dinners."

"Yes; I was presented to her."

"Ah! A match for you, Mr. Dick. Did you notice her feet?"

"I noticed that they were well shod."

"Just so!" muttered John Turner, who was now engaged in gastronomic delights. "In France a clever woman is always bien chaussée. Her brains run to her toes. In England it is different. If a woman has a brain it undermines her morals or ruins her waist."

"Only the plain women," suggested I, who had passed several seasons in London not altogether in vain.

"A pretty woman is never clever---she is too wise," said John Turner, stolidly, and he sipped his chablis.

The mysterious sauce with which this great gastronome flavoured his oysters was now prepared, while I, it must be confessed, had consumed my portion, and John Turner relapsed into silence. I watched him as he ate delicately, slowly, with a queer refinement. Many are ready to talk of some crafts under the name of art, which must now, forsooth, be spelt with a capital letter---why, I know no more than the artists. John Turner had his Art, and now exercised it. I always noticed that during the earlier and more piquant courses of a meal he was cynical and apt to give speech on matters of human meanness and vanity not unknown to many who are silent about them. Later on, when the dishes became more succulent, so would his views of life sweeten and acquire a mellower flavour. His round face now began to beam more pleasantly at me across the well-served table, like a rich autumn moon rising over a fat land.

"Pity it is," he said, as he placed a lamb cutlet on my plate, "that you and your father cannot agree."

"Pity that the guv'nor is so unreasonable," I answered.

"I do not suppose there is any question of reason on either side," rejoined my companion, with a laugh. "But I think you might make a little more allowance. You must remember that we old fellows are not so wise and experienced as our youngers and betters. I know he is a hot-blooded old reprobate---that father of yours. I thumped him at Eton for it half a century ago. And you're a worthy son to him, I make no doubt---you have his great chin. But you are all he has, Dick---don't forget that now and remember it too late. Have another cutlet?"


"Gad! I'd give five hundred a year for your appetite and digestion. Think of that old man, my boy, down in Norfolk at this time of year, with nobody to swear at but the servants. Norfolk is just endurable in October, when game and 'longshore herrings are in. But now---with lamb getting muttony---poor old chap!"

"Well," I answered, "he could not eat me if I was at home. But I'll go back in the autumn. I generally make it up before the First."

"What a beautiful thing is filial love," murmured my companion, with a stout sigh, as he turned his attention to the matter of importance on the plate before him; and indeed---with its handicap of fifty years---I think his appetite put my hearty craving for food to shame.

We talked of other things for a while---of matters connected with the gay town in which we found ourselves. We discussed the merits of the wine before us, and it was not until later in the course of the repast that John Turner again reverted to my affairs. If these portions of our talk alone are reported, the reader must kindly remember that they are at all events relevant to the subject, however unworthy, of this narrative.

"So," said my stout companion when the coffee was served, "you are tricking the father so that you may make love to the daughter?"

This view of the matter did not commend itself to my hearing. Indeed, the truth so often gives offence that it is no wonder so few deal in it. A quick answer was on my tongue, but fortunately remained there. I---who had never been too difficult in such matters---did not like something in my friend's voice that savoured of disrespect towards Mademoiselle de Clericy. In a younger man I might have been tempted to allow such a hint to develop into something stronger which would offer me the satisfaction of throwing the speaker down the stairs. But John Turner was not a man to quarrel with, even when one was in the wrong. So I kept silence and burnt my lips at my coffee cup.

"Well," he went on placidly, "Mademoiselle Lucille is a pretty girl."

"Lucille," I said. "Is that her name?"

He cocked his eye at me across the table.

"Yes---a pretty name, eh?"

"It is," I answered him, with steady eyes. "I never heard a prettier."

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