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7: In Provence

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Author Topic: 7: In Provence  (Read 16 times)
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« on: March 16, 2023, 11:45:05 am »

"Autant d'amoureux, autant d'amours; chacun aime comme il est."

The chateau of La Pauline stands at the head of the valley of the Nartubie in the department of Var, and looks down upon Draguignan, the capital of that division of France. La Pauline, and its surrounding lands formed the dot of the Vicomtesse de Clericy, and the products of its rich terraces were of no small account in the family revenues.

It was to this spot that Lucille and her mother repaired in the month of December. Not far away the Baron Giraud had his estate---the modern castle of "Mon Plaisir," with its little white turret, its porcelain bas-reliefs in brilliant colours let into the walls, its artificial gardens ornamented with gold and silver balls, and summer-houses of which the windows were glazed with playful fancy that outdid nature in clothing the prospect in the respective hues of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Very different from this was the ancient chateau of La Pauline, perched half-way up the mountain on a table-land---its grey stone face showing grimly against a sombre background of cypress trees. The house was built, as the antiquarians of Draguignan avow, of stone that was hewn by the Romans for less peaceful purposes. That an ancient building must have stood here would, indeed, be to some extent credible, from the fact that in front of the house lies a lawn of that weedless turf which is only found in this country in such places as the Arena at Fréjus. In the center of the lawn stands a sun dial---grey, green and ancient---a relic of those days when men lived by hours, and not by minutes, as we do to-day. It is all of the old world---of that old, old world of France beside which our British antiquities are, with a few exceptions, youthful. This was the birthplace of Madame de Clericy and of Lucille herself. Hither the ladies always returned with a quiet joy. There is no more peaceful spot on earth than La Pauline, chiefly, perhaps, because there is nothing in nature so still and lifeless as an olive grove. Why, by the way, do the birds of the air never build their nests in these trees---why do they rarely rest and never ring there? Behind La Pauline---so close, indeed, that the little chapel stands in the grey hush of the trees, guarded, of course, by a sentinel circle of cypresses---rise the olive terraces and stretch up, tier above tier, till the pines are reached. Below the grey house the valley opens out like a fan, and far away to the south the rugged crags of Roquebrune stand out against a faint blue haze, which is the Mediterranean.

No better example of Peace on Earth is to be found than La Pauline after sunset, at which time the olive groves are a silver fairyland---when the chapel bell tinkles in vain for the faithful to come to vespers---when the stout old placid curé sits down philosophically in the porch to read the office to himself, knowing well that a hot day in the vineyards turns all footsteps homewards.

When the ladies are in residence at the chateau, it is a different matter. Then, indeed, the curé lays aside his old soutane and dons that fine new clerical habit presented to him by Mademoiselle Lucille at the time of her first communion, when the Bishop of Fréjus came to Draguignan, and the whole valley assembled to do him honour there.

The ladies came, as we have said, in December, and at the gate the curé met them as usual---making there, as was his custom, a great hesitation as to kissing Lucille, now that she was a demoiselle of the great world, having---the rogue!---shaved with extraordinary care for that very purpose, a few hours earlier. Indeed, it is to be feared that the good curé did not always present so cleanly an appearance as he did on the arrival of the ladies. Here the family lived a quiet life among the peasants, who loved them, and Lucille visited them in their cottages, taking what simple hospitality they could offer her with a charm and appetite unrivalled, as the parishioners themselves have often told the writer. In these humble homes she found children with skins as white, with hair as fair and bright, as her own, and if the traveller wander so far from the beaten track, he can verify my statement. For in Var, by some racial freak---which, like all such matters, is in point of fact inexplicable---a large proportion of the people are of fair or ruddy complexions.

Had the Vicomtesse desired it, the neighbourhood offered society of a loftier, and, as some consider, more interesting, nature, but that lady did not hold much by social gatherings, and it was only from a sense of duty that she invited a few friends, about the time of Lucille's birthday---her twenty-first birthday, indeed---to pass some days at La Pauline.

These friends were bidden for the 26th December, and among them were the Baron Giraud and his son Alphonse.

Alphonse arrived on horseback in a costume which would have done credit to the head-groom of a racing stable. The right-hand twist of his moustache was eminently successful, but the left-hand extremity drooped with a lamentable effect, which he was not able to verify until after he had greeted the ladies, whom he met in the garden, as he rode toward the chateau.

"My father," he cried, as he descended from the saddle, "that dear old man, arrives on the instant. He is in a carriage---a close carriage, and he smokes. Picture it to yourselves---when there is this air to breathe---when there are horses to ride. Madame la Vicomtesse"---he took that lady's hand---"what a pleasure! Mademoiselle Lucille---as beautiful as ever."

"Even more so," replied Lucille with her gay laugh. "What exquisite riding-boots! But are they not a little tight, Alphonse?"

For Lucille could not perceive why playmates should suddenly begin to monsieur and mademoiselle each other after years of intimacy. This was the rock in that path which Alphonse, like the rest of us, found anything but smooth. Lucille was so gay. It is difficult to make serious love to a person who is not even impressed by English riding-boots.

At this moment the Baron's carriage appeared on the zig-zag road below the chateau, and Madame de Clericy's face assumed an expression of placid resignation. In due time the vehicle, with its gorgeous yellow wheels, reached the level space upon which the party stood. The Baron Giraud emerged from the satin-lined recesses of the dainty carriage like a stout caterpillar from a rose, a stumpy little man with no neck and a red face. A straggling dyed moustache failed to hide an unpleasant mouth, with lips too red and loose. Cunning little dark eyes relieved the countenance of the Baron Giraud from mere animalism. They were intelligent little eyes, that looked to no high things and made no mistake in low places. But the Baron Giraud did not make one proud of the human race. This was a man who handled millions with consummate skill and daring, and by a certain class of persons he was almost worshipped. Personally, a 'longshore loafer who can handle a boat with the same intrepidity is to me a pleasanter object, though skill of any description must command a certain respect.

There were other guests to whom the Baron was presently introduced, and towards these he carried himself with the pomposity and hauteur which are only permissible to the very highest rank of new wealth. Lucille, as I learnt from Monsieur Alphonse later---indeed, our friendship was based on the patience with which I listened to his talk of that young lady---was dressed on this particular afternoon in white, but such matters as these bungled between two men will interest no one. Her hair she wore half in curls, according to the hideous custom of that day. Is it not always safe to abuse the old fashion? And at no time safer than the present, when the whole world gapes with its great, foolish mouth after every novelty. I remember that Lucille looked pretty enough; but you, mesdames, who laugh at me, are no doubt quite right, and a thousand times more beautiful in your mannish attire.

The guests presently dispersed in the shady garden, and the Baron accepted Madame's offer of refreshment on the terrace, whither a servant brought a tray of liqueurs. The pleasant habit of afternoon tea had not yet been introduced across the channel, and French ladies had still something to learn.

"Ah, Madame!" said the Baron Giraud in a voice that may be described as metallic, inasmuch as it was tinny, "these young people!"

With a wave of his thick white hand he indicated Alphonse and Lucille, who had wandered down an alley entirely composed of orange trees, where, indeed, a yellow glow seemed to hover, so thickly hung the fruit on the branches. Madame followed the direction of his glance with a non-committing bow of the head.

"I shall have to ask Monsieur le Vicomte what he proposes doing in the way of a 'dot,'" pursued the financier with a cackling laugh, which was not silvery, though it savoured of bullion. The Vicomtesse smiled gravely, and offered the Baron one of those little square biscuits peculiar to Fréjus.

"Madame knows nothing of such matters?"

"Nothing," answered she, meeting the twinkling eyes.

"Ah!" murmured the Baron, addressing, it would seem, the distant mountains. "Such details are not, of course, for the ladies. It is the other side of the question"---he laid his hand upon his waistcoat---"the side of the affections---the heart, my dear Vicomtesse, the heart."

"Yes," answered Madame, looking at him with that disquieting straight glance of hers---"the heart."

In the mean time---in the orange alley---Alphonse was attempting to get a serious hearing from Lucille, and curiously enough was making use of the same word as that passing between their elders on the terrace above them.

"Have you no heart?" he cried, stamping his foot on the mossy turf, "that you always laugh when I am serious---have you no heart, Lucille?"

"I do not know what you mean by heart," answered the girl with a little frown, as if the subject did not please her. And wiser men than Alphonse Giraud could not have enlightened her.

"Then you are incapable of feeling," he cried, spreading out his hands as if in invocation to the trees to hear him.

"That may be, but I do not see that it is proved by the fact that I am not always grave. You, yourself, are gay enough when others are by, and it is then that I like you best. It is only when we are alone that you are---tragic. Is that---heart, Alphonse? And are those who laugh heartless? I doubt it."

"You know I love you," he muttered gloomily, and the expression on his round face did not seem at home there.

"Well," she answered, with a severity gathered heaven knows whence---I cannot think they taught it to her in the convent---"you have told me so twice since you became aware of my continued existence at the ball last month. But you are hopelessly serious to-day. Let us go back to the terrace."

She stooped and picked up an orange that had fallen, throwing it subsequently along the smooth turf for her dog to chase.

"See," she said gaily, "Talleyrand will scarcely trouble to run now. He is so stout and dignified. He is afraid that the country dogs should see him. It is Paris. Paris spoils---so much."

"You know my father's plans concerning us," said Alphonse, after a pause, which served to set aside Talleyrand and the orange.

"The Baron's plans are, I am told, wonderful, but"---she paused and gave a little laugh---"I do not understand finance."

They walked up the steps together, between the trim borders, where spring flowers were already breaking into bud. On the terrace they found the Vicomtesse and the Baron Giraud. A servant was going towards the house carrying carelessly a small silver salver. The Baron was standing with an unopened envelope in his hand.

"You will permit me, Madame," they heard him say with his strident little self-satisfied laugh. "A man of affairs is the slave of the moment. And the affairs of state are never still. A great country moves even in its sleep."

Having the permission of Madame, he tore open the envelope, enjoying the importance of the moment. But his face changed as soon as his glance fell on the paper.

"The government has fallen," he gasped, with white lips and a face wherefrom the colour faded in blotches. He seemed to forget the ladies, and looked only at his son. "It may mean---much. I must go to Paris at once. The place is in an uproar. Mon Dieu---where will it end!"

He excused himself hurriedly, and in a few minutes his carriage rattled through the grey stone gateway.

"An uproar in Paris," repeated Lucille, anxiously, when she was alone with her mother. "What does he mean? Is there any danger? Will papa be safe?"

"Yes," answered the Vicomtesse quietly; "he will be safe, I think."
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