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6: A Glimpse of Home

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Author Topic: 6: A Glimpse of Home  (Read 13 times)
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« on: March 16, 2023, 11:11:17 am »

"Pour rendre la société commode il faut que chacun conserve sa liberté."

Those who have rattled over the cobble stones of old Paris will understand that we had no opportunity of conversation during our drive from the Tuileries to the Rue des Palmiers. Lucille, with her white lace scarf half concealing her face, sat back in her corner with closed eyes and seemed to be asleep. As we passed the street lamps their light flashing across Madame's face showed her to be alert, attentive and sleepless. On crossing the Pont Napoleon I saw that the sky behind the towers of Notre Dame was already of a pearly grey. The dawn was indeed at hand, and the great city, wrapped in a brief and fitful slumber, would soon be rousing itself to another day of gaiety and tears, of work and play, of life and death.

The Rue des Palmiers was yet still. A sleepy servant opened the door, and we crept quietly upstairs, lest we should disturb the Vicomte, who, tired from his great journey, had retired to bed while I changed my clothes for the Imperial ball.

"Good-night," said Lucille, without looking round at the head of the stairs. Madame followed her daughter, but I noticed that she gave me no salutation.

I turned to my study, of which the door stood open, and where a shaded lamp discreetly burned. I threw aside my coat and attended to the light. My letters lay on the table, but before I had taken them up the rustle of a woman's dress in a gallery drew my attention elsewhere.

It was Madame, who came in bearing a small tray, whereon stood wine and biscuits.

"You are tired out," she said. "You had no refreshment at the Tuileries. You must drink this glass of wine."

"Thank you, Madame," I answered, and turned to my letters, among which were a couple of telegrams. But she laid her quiet hand upon them and pointed with the other to the glass that she had filled. She watched me drink the strong wine, which was, indeed, almost a cordial, then took up the letters in her hands.

"My poor friend," she said, "there is bad news for you here. You must be prepared."

Handing me the letters, she went to the door, but did not quit the room. She merely stood there with her back turned to me, exhibiting a strange, silent patience while I slowly opened the letters and read that my father and I had quarrelled for the last time.

It was I who moved first and broke the silence of that old house. The daylight was glimmering through the closed jalousies, making stripes of light upon the ceiling. "Madame," I said, "I must go home---to England---by the early train, this morning! May I ask you to explain to Monsieur le Vicomte."

"Yes," she answered, turning and facing me. "Your coffee will be ready at seven o'clock. And none of us will come downstairs until after your departure. At such times a man is better alone---is it not so? For a woman it is different."

I extinguished the useless lamp, and we passed round the gallery together. At the door of my bedroom she stopped, and turning, laid her hand---as light as a child's---upon my arm.

"What will you, my poor friend?" she said, with a queer little smile. "C'est la vie."

It is not my intention to dwell at length upon my journey to England and all that awaited me there. There are times in his life when---as Madame de Clericy said, with her wise smile---a man is better alone. And are there not occasions when the most eloquent of us is best dumb?

I had for travelling companion on the bright autumn morning when I quitted Paris my father's friend, John Turner---called suddenly to England on matters of business. He gave a grunt when he saw me in the Northern station.

"Better have taken my advice," he said, "to go home and make it up with your father, rather than stay here to run after that girl with the pretty hair---at your time of life. Avoid quarrels and seek a reconciliation---that is my plan. Best way is to ask the other chap to dinner and do him well. What are you going home for now? It is too late."

As, indeed, I knew without the telling. For when I reached Hopton my father had already been laid in the old churchyard beneath the shadow of the crumbling walls of the ruined church, which is now no longer used. They have built a gaudy new edifice farther inland, but so long as a Howard owns Hopton Hall, we shall, I think, continue to lie in the graveyard nearer to the sea.

I suppose we are a quarrelsome race, for I fell foul of several persons almost as soon as I arrived. The lawyers vowed that there were difficulties---but none, I protest, but what such parchment minds as theirs would pause to heed. One thing, however, was certain. Did I not read it in black and white myself? My obstinate old father---and, by gad! I respect him for it---had held to his purpose. He had left me penniless unless I consented to marry Isabella Gayerson. The estate was bequeathed in trust, to be administered by said trustees during my lifetime, unless I acceded to a certain matrimonial arrangement entertained for me. Those were the exact words. So Isabella had no cause to blush when the will was published abroad. And we may be sure that the whole county knew it soon enough, and vowed that they had always thought so.

"If one may inquire the nature of the matrimonial arrangement so vaguely specified?". . . said the respectable Norwich solicitor who, like all his kind, had a better coat than his client, for those who live on the vanity and greed of their neighbours live well.

"One may," I replied, "and one may go to the devil and ask him."

The lawyer gave a dry laugh as he turned over his papers, and I make no doubt charged some one for his wounded feelings.

So the secret was kept between me and the newly raised stone in Hopton churchyard. And I felt somehow that there was a link between us in the fact that my father had kept the matter of our quarrel from the mouths of gossips and tattlers, leaving it to my honour to obey or disobey him, and abide by the result.

I am not one of those who think it right to remember their dead as saints who lived a blameless life, and passed away from a world that was not good enough for them. Is it not wiser to remember them as they were, men and women like ourselves, with faults in number, and a half-developed virtue or two, possessing something beyond copybook good or evil, which won our love in life, and will keep their memory green after death? I did not fall into the error of thinking that death had hallowed wishes which I had opposed in life; and while standing by my father's grave, where he lay, after long years, by the side of the fair girl whom I had called mother, I respected him for having died without changing his opinion, while recognising no call to alter mine.

The hall, it appeared, was to be held at my disposal to live in whenever I so wished, but I was forbidden to let it. A young solicitor of Yarmouth, working up, as they say, a practice, wrote to me in confidence, saying that the will was an iniquitous one, and presuming that I intended to contest its legality. He further informed me that such work was, singularly enough, a branch of the profession of which he had made a special study. I replied that persons who presumed rendered themselves liable to kicks, and heard no more from Yarmouth.

The neighbours were kind enough to offer me advice or hospitality, according to their nature, neither of which I felt inclined, at that time, to accept, but made some small return for their good will by inviting them to extend their shooting over the Hopton preserves, knowing that my poor old sire would turn in his grave were the birds allowed to go free.

Among others I received a letter from Isabella Gayerson, conveying the sympathy of her aged father and mother in my bereavement.

"As for myself," she wrote, "you know, Dick, that no one feels more keenly for you at this time, and wishes more sincerely that she could put her sympathy to some practical use. The hall must necessarily be but a sad and lonely dwelling for you now, and we want you to recollect that Fairacre is now, as at all times, a second home, where an affectionate welcome awaits you."

So wrote the subject of our quarrel, and in a like friendly tone I made reply. Whether Isabella was aware of the part she had played in my affairs, wiser heads must decide for themselves. If such was the case, she made no sign, and wrote at intervals letters of a spirit similar to that displayed in the paragraph above transcribed. On such affairs, men are but poor prophets in the strange country of a woman's mind. A small experience of the sex leads me, however, to suggest that, as a rule, women---ay, and schoolgirls---have a greater knowledge of such matters of the heart than they are credited with---that, indeed, women usually err on the side of knowing too much---knowing, in a word, facts that do not exist.

So disgusted was I with the whole business that I turned my back on the land of my birth and left the lawyers to fight over their details. I appointed a London solicitor to watch my interests, who smiled at my account of the affair, saying that things would be better settled among members of the legal profession---that my ways were not theirs. For which compliment I fervently thanked him, and shook the dust of London from off my feet.

The Vicomte de Clericy had notified to me by letter that my post would be held vacant and at my disposal for an indefinite period, but that at the same time my presence would be an infinite relief to him. This was no doubt the old gentleman's courteous way of putting it, for I had done little enough to make my absence of any note.

Travelling all night, I arrived in the Rue des Palmiers at nine o'clock one morning, and took coffee as usual in my study. At ten o'clock Monsieur de Clericy came to me there, and was kind enough to express both sympathy at my bereavement and pleasure at my return. In reply I thanked him.

"But," I added, "I regret that I must resign my post."

"Resign," cried the old gentleman. "Mon Dieu! do not talk of it. Why do you think of such a thing?"

"I am no secretary. I have never had the taste for such work nor a chance of learning to do it."

The Vicomte looked at me thoughtfully.

"But you are what I want," he replied. "A man---a responsible man, and not a machine."

"Bah," said I, shrugging my shoulders, "what are we doing---work that any could do. What am I wanted for? I have done nothing but write a few letters and frighten a handful of farmers in Provence."

The Vicomte de Clericy coughed confidentially.

"My dear Howard," he answered, looking at the door to make sure that it was closed. "I am getting an old man. I am only fit to manage my affairs while all is tranquil and in order. Tell me---as man to man---will things remain tranquil and in order? You know as well as I do that the Emperor has a malady from which there is no recovery. And the Empress, ah! yes---she is a clever woman. She has spirit. It is not every woman who would take this journey to Egypt to open the Suez Canal and make that great enterprise a French undertaking. But has a woman ever governed France successfully---from the boudoir or the throne? Look back into history, my dear Howard, and tell me what the end of a woman's government has always been."

It was the first time that my old patron had named politics in my hearing, or acknowledged their bearing upon the condition of private persons in France. His father had been of the emigration. He himself had been born in exile. The family prestige was but a ghost of its former self---and I had hitherto treated the subject as a sore one and beyond my province.

The Vicomte had sat down at my table. As for me, I was already on the broad window seat, looking down into the garden. Lucille was there upbraiding a gardener. I could see the nature of their conversation from the girl's face. She was probably wanting something out of season. Women often do. The man was deprecatory, and pointed contemptuously towards the heavens with a rake. There was a long silence in the room which was called my study.

"I think, mon ami," said my companion at length, "that there is another reason."

"Yes," answered I, bluntly, "there is."

I did not look round, but continued to watch Lucille in the garden. The Vicomte sat in silence---waiting, no doubt, for a further explanation. Failing to get this, he said, rather testily as I thought:

"Is the reason in the garden, my friend, that your eyes are fixed there?"

"Yes, it is. It is scolding the gardener. And I think I am better away from the Hôtel Clericy, Monsieur le Vicomte."

The old man slowly rose and came to the window, standing behind me.

"Oh---la, la!" he muttered in his quaint way---an exclamation uncomplimentary to myself; for our neighbours across channel reserve the syllables exclusively for their disasters.

We looked down at Lucille, standing amid the chrysanthemums, lending to their pink and white bloom a face as fresh as any of the flowers.

"But it is a child, mon ami," said the Vicomte, with his tolerant smile.

"Yes---I ought to know better, I admit," answered I, rising and attending to the papers on the writing table, and I laughed without feeling very merry. I sat down and began mechanically to work. At all events, my conscience had won this time—and if the Vicomte pressed me to stay, he did so with full knowledge of the danger.

The window was open. The Evil One prompted Lucille at that moment to break into one of those foolish little songs of Provence, and the ink dried on my pen.

The Vicomte broke the silence that followed.

"The ladies are going away for the winter months," he said. "They are going to Draguignan, in Var. At all events, stay with me until they return."

"I cannot think why you ever took me."

"An old man's fancy, mon cher. You will not forsake me."


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