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14: A Little Cloud

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Author Topic: 14: A Little Cloud  (Read 55 times)
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« on: March 17, 2023, 08:10:50 am »

"Rien ne nous rend si grand qu'une grande douleur."

Alphonse Giraud and I---between whom had sprung up that friendship of contrasts which Madame de Clericy had foreseen---were in constant communication. My summons brought him to the Hôtel Clericy at once, where he found the ladies already apprised of their bereavement. He and I set off again for Passy, by train this time, as our need was more urgent. I despatched instructions to the Vicomte's lawyer to follow by the next train---bringing the undertaker with him. There was no heir to my patron's titles, but it seemed necessary to observe every formality at this the dramatic extinction of a long and noble line.

As we drove through the streets, the newsboys were shrieking some tidings which we had neither time nor inclination to inquire into at that moment. It was a hot July day, and Paris should have been half empty, but the pavements were crowded.

"What is the matter?" I said to Alphonse Giraud, who was too busy with his horse to look about. "See the faces of the men at the cafés---they are wild with excitement and some look scared. There is news afoot."

"My good friend," returned Giraud, "I was in bed when your note reached me. Besides, I only read the sporting columns of the papers."

So we took train to Passy, without learning what it was that seemed to be stirring Paris as a squall stirs the sea.

At Passy there was indeed grim work awaiting us. The Préfet himself was kind enough to busy himself in a matter which was scarcely within his province. He had instructed the police to conduct us to his house, where he received us most hospitably.

"Neither of you is related to the Vicomte?" he said, interrogatively; and we stated our case at once.

"It is well that you did not bring Madame with you," he said. "You forbade her to come?"

And he looked at me with a keenness which, I trust, impressed the police official for whose benefit it was assumed.

"I begged her to remain in Paris."

"Ah!" and he gave a significant laugh. "However---so long as she is not here."

He was a white-faced man, who looked as if he had been dried up by some blanching process. One could imagine that the heart inside him was white also. In his own eyes it was evident that he was a vastly clever man. I thought him rather an ass.

"You know, gentlemen," he said, as he prepared his papers, "the recognition of the body is a mere formality."

"Then let us omit it, Monsieur le Préfet," exclaimed Alphonse, with characteristic cheerfulness; but the remark was treated with contempt.

"In July, gentlemen," went on the Préfet, "the Seine is warm---there are eels---a hundred animalculæ---a score of decomposing elements. However, there are the clothes---the contents of Monsieur le Vicomte's pockets---a signet ring. Shall we go? But first take another glass of wine. If the nerves are sensitive---a few drops of Benedictine?"

"If I may have it in a claret glass," said Alphonse, and he launched into a voluble explanation, to which the Préfet listened with a thin, transparent smile. I thought that he would have been better pleased had some of the Vicomte's titled friends come to observe this formality. But one's grand friends are better kept for fine weather only, and the official had to content himself with the company of a private secretary and the son of a ruined financier.

Alphonse and I had no difficulty in recognizing the small belongings which had been extracted from my old patron's sodden clothing. In the letter case was a letter from myself on some small matter of business. I pointed this out, and signed my name a second time on the yellow and crinkled paper for the further satisfaction of the lawyer. Then we passed into an inner room and stood in the presence of the dead man. The recognition was, as the Préfet had said, a painful formality. Alphonse Giraud and I swore to the clothing---indeed, the linen was marked plainly enough---and we left the undertaker to his work.

Giraud looked at me with a dry smile when we stood in the fresh air again.

"You and I, Howard," he said, "seem to have got on the seamy side of life lately."

And during the journey I saw him shiver once or twice at the recollection of what we had seen. His carriage was awaiting us at the railway station. Alphonse had been brought up in a school where horses and servants are treated as machines. The man who stood at the horse's head was, however, anything but mechanical, for he ran up to us as soon as we emerged from the crowded exit.

"Monsieur le Baron!" he cried excitedly, with a dull light in his eyes that made a man of him, and no servant. "Has Monsieur le Baron heard the news---the great tidings?"

"No---we have heard nothing. What is your news?"

"The King of Prussia has insulted the French Ambassador at Ems. He struck him on the face, as it is said. And war has been declared by the Emperor. They are going to march to Berlin, Monsieur!"

As he spoke two groups of men swaggered arm in arm along the street. They were singing "Partant pour la Syrie," very much out of tune. Others were crying "À Berlin—à Berlin!"

Alphonse Giraud turned and looked at me with a sudden rush of colour in his cheeks.

"And I, who thought life a matter of coats and neckties," he said, with that quick recognition of his own error that first endeared him to me and made him the better man of the two.

We stood for a few minutes watching the excited groups of men on the Boulevard. At the cafés the street boys were selling newspapers at a prodigious rate, and wherever a soldier could be seen there were many pressing him to drink.

"In Berlin," they shouted, "you will get sour beer, so you must drink good red wine when it is to be had." And the diminutive bulwarks of France were ready enough, we may be sure, to swallow Dutch courage.

"In Berlin!" echoed Giraud, at my side. "Will it end there?"

"There or in Paris," answered I, and lay no claim to astuteness, for the words were carelessly uttered.

We drove through the noisy streets, and Frenchmen never before or since showed themselves to such small advantage---so puerile, so petty, so vain. It was "Berlin" here and "Berlin" there, and "Down with Prussia" on every side. A hundred catchwords, a thousand raised voices, and not one cool head to realize that war is not a game. The very sellers of toys in the gutter had already nicknamed their wares, and offered the passer a black doll under the name of Bismarck, or a monkey on a stick called the King of Prussia.

It was with difficulty that I brought Alphonse Giraud to a grave discussion of the pressing matter we had in hand, for his superficial nature was open to every wind that blew, and now swayed to the tempest of martial ardour that swept across the streets of Paris.

"I think," he said, "I will buy myself a commission. I should like to go to Berlin. Yes---Howard, mon brave, I will buy myself a commission."

"With what?"

"Ah---mon Dieu!---that is true. I have no money. I am ruined. I forgot that."

And he waved a gay salutation of the whip to a passing friend.

"And then, also," he added, with a face suddenly lugubrious, "we have the terrible business of the Vicomte. Howard---listen to me---at all costs the ladies must never see that---must never know. Dieu! it was horrible. I feel all twisted here---as when I smoked my first cigar."

He touched himself on the chest, and with one of his inimitable gestures described in the air a great upheaval.

"I will try to prevent it," I answered.

"Then you will succeed, for your way of suggesting might easily be called by another name. And it is not only the women who obey you. I told Lucille the other day that she was afraid of you, and she blazed up in such a fury of denial that I felt smaller than nature has made me. Her anger made her more beautiful than ever, and I was stupid enough to tell her so. She hates a compliment, you know."

"Indeed, I have never tried her with one."

Alphonse looked at me with grave surprise.

"It is a good thing," he said, "that you do not love her. Name of God! where should I be?"

"But it is with Madame and not Mademoiselle Lucille that we shall have to do this afternoon," I said hastily.

Although he was more or less acknowledged as an aspirant to Lucille's hand, Giraud refused to come within the door when we reached the Hôtel Clericy.

"No," he answered; "they will not want to see me at such a time. It is only when people want to laugh that I am required."

I found Madame quite calm, and all her thoughts were for Lucille. The more a man is brought into contact with maternal love, even if it bear in no way upon his own life, the better he will be for it---for this is surely the loftiest of human feelings.

My own mother having died when I was but an infant, it had never been my lot to live in intimacy with women, until fate guided me to the Hôtel Clericy.

At no time had I felt such respect for that quiet woman, Madame de Clericy, as on this afternoon when widowhood first cast its sable veil over her.

"Lucille," she said at once, "must not be allowed to grieve for me. She has her own sorrow to bear, for she loved her father dearly. Do not let her have any thought for me."

And later, when the gods gave me five minutes alone with Lucille herself----

"You must not," she said, her face drawn and white, her lips quivering, "you must not let mother think that this is more than I can bear. It falls heavier upon her."

I blundered on somehow during those two days, making, no doubt, a hundred mistakes; for what comfort could I offer? What pretence could I make to understand the feelings of these ladies? My task was not so difficult as I had anticipated in regard to the grim coffin lying at Passy. To spare the other, both ladies agreed with me separately that the Vicomte should be buried from Passy as quietly as possible, and Lucille overlooked the fact that the suggestion came from such an unwelcome source as myself.

So, amid the wild excitement of July, 1870, we laid Charles Albert Malaunay, Vicomte de Clericy, to rest among his ancestors in the little church of Senneville, near Nevers. The war fever was at its height, and all France convulsed with passionate hatred for the Prussian.

It is not for one who has found his truest friends---ay, and his keenest enemies---in France to say aught against so great and gifted a people. But it seems, as I look back now, that the French were ripe in 1870 for one of those strokes by which High Heaven teaches nations from time to time through the world's history that human greatness is a small affair.

There are no people so tolerant of folly as the Parisians. It walks abroad in the streets of the great city with such unblushing self-satisfaction---such a brazen sense of its own superiority---that any Englishman must long to import a hundred London street boys, with their sense of ridicule and fearless tongue. At all times the world has possessed an army of geniuses whose greatness consists of faith and not of works---of faith in themselves which takes the outward form of weird clothing, long hair, and a literary or artistic pose. Paris streets were so full of such in 1870 that all thoughtful men could scarce fail to recognise a nation in its decadence.

"The asses preponderate in the streets," said John Turner to me. "You may hear their bray in every café, and France is going to the devil."

And indeed the voices raised in the drinking dens were those of the fool and the knave.

I busied myself with looking into the money affairs of my poor patron, and found them in great disorder. All the ready cash had fallen into the hands of Miste. Some of the estates, as, indeed, I already knew, yielded little or nothing. The commerce of France was naturally paralysed by the declaration of war, and no one wanted a vast old house in the Faubourg St. Germain---a hotbed of Legitimism where no good Buonapartist cared to own a friend or show his face.

I disguised nothing from Madame de Clericy, whom indeed it was hard to deceive.

"Then," she said, "there is no money."

We were in my study, where I was seated at the table, while Madame moved from table to mantelpiece with a woman's keen sight for the blemishes to be found in a bachelor's apartment.

"For the moment you are in need of ready money---that is all. If the war is brought to a speedy termination, all will be set right."

"And if the war is not brought to a speedy termination---you are a second-rate optimist, mon ami---what then?"

"Then I shall have to find some expedient."

She looked at me probingly. The windows were open, and we heard the cries of the newsboys in the streets.

"Hear!" she said; "they are shouting of victories."

I shrugged my shoulders.

"You mean," said the Vicomtesse slowly, "that they will shout of victories until the Prussians are in sight of Paris."

"The Parisians will pay two sous for good news, and nothing at all for evil tidings," I answered.

Thus we lived for some weeks, through the heat of July---and I could neither leave Paris nor give thought to Charles Miste. That scoundrel was, however, singularly quiet. No cheque had been cashed, and we knew, at all events, that he had realised none of his stolen wealth. On the tenth of July the Ollivier Ministry fell. Things were going from bad to worse. At the end of the month the Emperor quitted St. Cloud to take command of the army. He never came to France again.

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