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The Pomp of the Lavilettes (Chapter14)

2006-08-28 14:30

  Volume 2 Chapter XIV

  Before he left for the front next morning to join his company and march to Papineau's headquarters, Nic came to Ferrol, told him, with rage and disappointment, the story of the highway robbery, and also that he hoped Ferrol would not worry about the Rebellion, and would remain at the Manor Casimbault in any case.

  "Anyhow," said he, "my mother's half English; so you're not alone. We're going to make a big fight for it. We've stood it as long as we can. But we're friends in this, aren't we, Ferrol?"

  There was a pause, in which Ferrol sipped his whiskey and milk, and continued dressing. He set the glass down, and looked towards the open window, through which came the smell of the ripe orchard and the fragrance of the pines. He turned to. Lavilette at last and said, as he fastened his collar:

  "Yes, you and I are friends, Nic; but I'm a Britisher, and my people have been Britishers since Edward the Third's time; and for this same Quebec two of my great-grand-uncles fought and lost their lives. If I were sound of wind and limb I'd fight, like them, to keep what they helped to get. You're in for a rare good beating, and, see, my friend——while I wouldn't do you any harm personally, I'd crawl on my knees from here to the citadel at Quebec to get a pot-shot at your rag-tag-and-bobtail 'patriots.' You can count me a first-class enemy to your 'cause,' though I'm not a first-class fighting man. And now, Nic, give me a lift with my coat. This shoulder jibs a bit since the bear-baiting."

  Lavilette was naturally prejudiced in Ferrol's favour; and this deliberate and straightforward patriotism more pleased than offended him. His own patriotism was not a deep or lasting thing: vanity and a restless spirit were its fountains of inspiration. He knew that Ferrol was penniless——or he was so yesterday——and this quiet defiance of events in the very camp of the enemy could not but appeal to his ebullient, Gallic chivalry. Ferrol did not say these things because he had five thousand dollars behind him, for he would have said them if he were starving and dying——perhaps out of an inherent stubbornness, perhaps because this hereditary virtue in him would have been as hard to resist as his sins.

  "That's all right, Ferrol," answered Lavilette. "I hope you'll stay here at the Manor, no matter what comes. You're welcome. Will you?"

  "Yes, I'll stay, and glad to. I can't very well do anything else. I'm bankrupt. Haven't got a penny——of my own," he added, with daring irony. "Besides, it's comfortable here, and I feel like one of the family; and, anyhow, Life is short and Time is a pacer!" His wearing cough emphasised the statement.

  "It won't be easy for you in Bonaventure," said Nicolas, walking restlessly up and down. "They're nearly all for the cause, all except the Cure. But he can't do much now, and he'll keep out of the mess. By the time he has a chance to preach against it, next Sunday, every man that wants to 'll be at the front, and fighting. But you'll be all right, I think. They like you here."

  "I've a couple of good friends to see me through," was the quiet reply.

  "Who are they?"

  Ferrol went to his trunk, took out a pair of pistols, and balanced them lightly in his hands. "Good to confuse twenty men," he said. "A brace of 'em are bound to drop, and they don't know which one."

  He raised a pistol lazily, and looked out along its barrel through the open, sunshiny window. Something in the pose of the body, in the curve of the arm, struck Nicolas strangely. He moved almost in front of Ferrol. There came back to him mechanically the remembrance of a piece of silver on the butt of one of the highwayman's pistols!

  The same piece of silver was on the butt of Ferrol's pistol. It startled him; but he almost laughed to him self at the absurdity of the suggestion. Ferrol was the last man in the world to play a game like that, and with him.

  Still he could not resist a temptation. He stepped in front of the pistol, almost touching it with his forehead, looking at Ferrol as he had looked at the highwayman last night.

  "Look out, it's loaded!" said Ferrol, lowering the weapon coolly, and not showing by sign or muscle that he understood Lavilette's meaning. "I should think you'd had enough of pistols for one twenty-four hours."

  "Do you know, Ferrol, you looked just then so like the robber last night that, for one moment, I half thought!——And the pistol, too, looks just the same——that silver piece on the butt!"

  "Oh, yes, this piece for the name of the owner!" said Ferrol, in a laughing brogue, and he coughed a little. "Well, maybe some one did use this pistol last night. It wouldn't be hard to open my trunk. Let's see; whom shall we suspect?"

  Lavilette was entirely reassured, if indeed he needed reassurance. Ferrol coughed still more, and was obliged to sit down on the side of the bed and rest himself against the foot-board.

  "There's a new jug of medicine or cordial come this morning from Shangois, the notary," said Lavilette. "I just happened to think of it. What he does counts. He knows a lot."

  Ferrol's eyes showed interest at once.

  "I'll try it. I'll try it. The stuff Gatineau the miller sent doesn't do any good now."

  "Shangois is here——he's downstairs——if you want to see him."

  Ferrol nodded. He was tired of talking.

  "I'm going," said Lavilette, holding out his hand. "I'll join my company to-day, and the scrimmage 'll begin as soon as we reach Papineau. We've got four hundred men."

  Ferrol tried to say something, but he was struggling with the cough in his throat. He held out his hand, and Nicolas took it. At last he was able to say:

  "Good luck to you, Nic, and to the devil with the Rebellion! You're in for a bad drubbing."

  Nicolas had a sudden feeling of anger. This superior air of Ferrol's was assumed by most Englishmen in the country, and it galled him.

  "We'll not ask quarter of Englishmen; no-sacre!" he said in a rage.

  "Well, Nic, I'm not so sure of that. Better do that than break your pretty neck on a taut rope," was the lazy reply.

  With an oath, Lavilette went out, banging the door after him. Ferrol shrugged his shoulder with a stoic ennui, and put away the pistols in the trunk. He was thinking how reckless he had been to take them out; and yet he was amused, too, at the risk he had run. A strange indifference possessed him this morning——indifference to everything. He was suffering reaction from the previous day's excitement. He had got the five thousand dollars, and now all interest in it seemed to have departed.

  Suddenly he said to himself, as he ran a brush around his coat-collar:

  "'Pon my soul, I forgot; this is my wedding day!——the great day in a man's life, the immense event, after which comes steady happiness or the devil to pay."

  He stepped to the window and looked out. It was only six o'clock as yet. He could see the harvesters going to their labours in the fields of wheat and oats, the carters already bringing in little loads of hay. He could hear their marche-'t'-en! to the horses. Over by a little house on the river bank stood an old woman sharpening a sickle. He could see the flash of the steel as the stone and metal gently clashed.

  Presently a song came up to him, through the garden below, from the house. The notes seemed to keep time to the hand of the sickle- sharpener. He had heard it before, but only in snatches. Now it seemed to pierce his senses and to flood his nerves with feeling.

  The air was sensuous, insinuating, ardent. The words were full of summer and of that dramatic indolence of passion which saved the incident at Magon Farcinelle's from being as vulgar as it was treacherous. The voice was Christine's, on her wedding day.

  "Oh, hark how the wind goes, the wind goes(And dark goes the stream by the mill!)

  Oh, see where the storm blows, the storm blows(There's a rider comes over the hill!)

  "He went with the sunshine one morning(Oh, loud was the bugle and drum!)

  My soldier, he gave me no warning(Oh, would that my lover might come!)

  "My kisses, my kisses are waiting(Oh, the rider comes over the hill!)

  In summer the birds should be mating(Oh, the harvest goes down to the mill!)

  "Oh, the rider, the rider he stayeth(Oh, joy that my lover hath come!)

  We will journey together he sayeth(No more with the bugle and drum!)"

  He caught sight of Christine for a moment as she passed through the garden towards the stable. Her gown was of white stuff, with little spots of red in it, and a narrow red ribbon was shot through the collar. Her hat was a pretty white straw, with red artificial flowers upon it. She wore at her throat a medallion brooch: one of the two heirlooms of the Lavilette family. It had belonged to the great-grandmother of Monsieur Louis Lavilette, and was the one security that this ambitious family did not spring up, like a mushroom, in one night. It had always touched Christine's imagination as a child. Some native instinct in, her made her prize it beyond everything else. She used to make up wonderful stories about it, and tell them to Sophie, who merely wondered, and was not sure but that Christine was wicked; for were not these little romances little lies? Sophie's imagination was limited. As the years went on Christine finally got possession of the medallion, and held it against all opposition. Somehow, with it on this morning, she felt diminish the social distance between herself and Ferrol.

  Ferrol himself thought nothing of social distance. Men, as a rule, get rather above that sort of thing. The woman: that was all that was in his mind. She was good to look at: warm, lovable, fascinating in her little daring wickednesses; a fiery little animal, full of splendid impulses, gifted with a perilous temperament: and she loved him. He had a kind of exultation at the very fierceness of her love for him, of what she had done to prove her love: her fury at Vanne Castine, the slaughter of the bear, and the intention to kill Vanne himself; and he knew that she would do more than that, if a great test came. Men feel surer of women than women feel of men.

  He sat down on the broad window-ledge, still sipping his whiskey and milk, as he looked at her. She was very good to see. Presently she had to cross a little plot of grass. The dew was still on it. She gathered up her skirts and tip-toed quickly across it. The action was attractive enough, for she had a lithe smoothness of motion. Suddenly he uttered an exclamation of surprise.

  "White stockings——humph!" he said.

  Somehow those white stockings suggested the ironical comment of the world upon his proposed mesalliance; then he laughed good-humouredly.

  "Taste is all a matter of habit, anyhow," said he to himself. "My own sister wouldn't have had any better taste if she hadn't been taught. And what am I?

  "What am I? I drink more whiskey in a day than any three men in the country. I don't do a stroke of work; I've got debts all over the world; I've mulcted all my friends; I've made fools of two or three women in my time; I've broken every commandment except——well, I guess I've broken every one, if it comes to that, in spirit, anyhow. I'm a thief, a fire- eating highwayman, begad, and here I am, with a perforated lung, going to marry a young girl like that, without one penny in the world except what I stole! What beasts men are! The worst woman may be worse than the worst man, but all men are worse than most women. But she wants to marry me. She knows exactly what I am in health and prospects; so why shouldn't I?"

  He drew himself up, thinking honestly. He believed that he would live if he married Christine; that his "cold" would get better; that the hole in his lung would heal. It was only a matter of climate; he was sure of it. Christine had a few hundred dollars——she had told him so. Suppose he took three hundred dollars of the five thousand dollars: that would leave four thousand seven hundred dollars for his sister. He could go away south with Christine, and could live on five or six hundred dollars a year; then he'd be fit for something. He could go to work. He could join the Militia, if necessary. Anyhow, he could get something to do when he got well.

  He drank some more whiskey and milk. "Self-preservation, that's the thing; that's the first law," he said. "And more: if the only girl I ever loved, ever really loved——loved from the crown of her head to the sole of her feet——were here to-day, and Christine stood beside her, little plebeian with a big heart, by Heaven, I'd choose Christine. I can trust her, though she is a little liar. She loves, and she'll stick; and she's true where she loves. Yes; if all the women in the world stood beside Christine this morning, I'd look them all over, from duchess to danseuse, and I'd say, 'Christine Lavilette, I'm a scoundrel. I haven't a penny in the world. I'm a thief; a thief who believes in you. You know what love is; you know what fidelity is. No matter what I did, you would stand by me to the end. To the last day of my life, I'll give you my heart and my hand; and as you are faithful to me, so I will be faithful to you, so help me God!'

  "I don't believe I ever could have run straight in life. I couldn't have been more than four years old when I stole the peaches from my mother's dressing-table; and I lied just as coolly then as I could now. I made love to a girl when I was ten years old." He laughed to himself at the remembrance. "Her father had a foundry. She used to wear a red dress, I remember, and her hair was brown. She sang like a little lark. I was half mad about her; and yet I knew that I didn't really love her. Still, I told her that I did. I suppose it was the cursed falseness of my whole nature. I know that whenever I have said most, and felt most, something in me kept saying all the time: 'You're lying, you're lying, you're lying!' Was I born a liar?

  I wonder if the first words I ever spoke were a lie? I wonder, when I kissed my mother first, and knew that I was kissing her, if the same little devil that sits up in my head now, said then: 'You're lying, you're lying, you're lying.' It has said so enough times since. I loved to be with my mother; yet I never felt, even when she died——and God knows I felt bad enough then!

  I never felt that my love was all real. It had some infernal note of falseness somewhere, some miserable, hollow place where the sound of my own voice, when I tried to speak the truth, mocked me! I wonder if the smiles I gave, before I was able to speak at all, were only blarney? I wonder, were they only from the wish to stand well with everybody, if I could? It must have been that; and how much I meant, and how much I did not mean, God alone knows!

  "What a sympathy I have always had for criminals! I have always wanted, or, anyhow, one side of me has always wanted, to do right, and the other side has always done wrong. I have sympathised with the just, but I have always felt that I'd like to help the criminal to escape his punishment. If I had been more real with that girl in New York, I wonder whether she wouldn't have stuck to me? When I was with her I could always convince her; but, I remember, she told me once that, when I was away from her, she somehow felt that I didn't really love her. That's always been the way. When I was with people, they liked me; when I was away from them, I couldn't depend upon them. No; upon my soul, of all the friends I've ever had, there's not one that I know of that I could go to now——except my sister, poor girl!——and feel sure that no matter what I did, they'd stick to me to the end. I suppose the fault is mine. If I'd been worth the standing by, I'd have been the better stood by. But this girl, this little French provincial, with a heart of fire and gold, with a touch of sin in her, and a thumping artery of truth, she would walk with me to the gallows, and give her life to save my life——yes, a hundred times. Well, then, I'll start over again; for I've found the real thing. I'll be true to her just as long as she's true to me. I'll never lie to her; and I'll do something else——something else. I'll tell her——"

  He reached out, picked a wild rose from the vine upon the wall, and fastened it in his button-hole, with a defiant sort of smile, as there came a tap to his door. "Come in," he said.

  The door opened, and in stepped Shangois, the notary. He carried a jug under his arm, which, with a nod, he set down at the foot of the bed.

  "M'sieu'," said he, "it is a thing that cured the bishop; and once, when a prince of France was at Quebec, and had a bad cold, it cured him. The whiskey in it I made myself——very good white wine." Ferrol looked at the little man curiously. He had only spoken with him once or twice, but he had heard the numberless legends about him, and the Cure had told him many of his sayings, a little weird and sometimes maliciously true to the facts of life.

  Ferrol thanked the little man, and motioned to a chair. There was, however, a huge chest against the wall near the window, and Shangois sat down on this, with his legs hunched up to his chin, looking at Ferrol with steady, inquisitive eyes. Ferrol laughed outright. A grotesque thought occurred to him. This little black notary was exactly like the weird imp which, he had always imagined, sat high up in his brain, dropping down little ironies and devilries——his personified conscience; or, perhaps, the truth left out of him at birth and given this form, to be with him, yet not of him.

  Shangois did not stir, nor show by even the wink of an eyelid that he recognised the laughter, or thought that he was being laughed at.

  Presently Ferrol sat down and looked at Shangois without speaking, as Shangois looked at him. He smiled more than once, however, as the thought recurred to him.

  "Well?" he said at last.

  "What if she finds out about the five thousand dollars——eh, m'sieu'?"

  Ferrol was completely dumfounded. The brief question covered so much ground——showed a knowledge of the whole case. Like Conscience itself, the little black notary had gone straight to the point, struck home. He was keen enough, however, had sufficient self-command, not to betray himself, but remained unmoved outwardly, and spoke calmly.

  "Is that your business——to go round the parish asking conundrums?" he said coolly. "I can't guess the answer to that one, can you?"

  Shangois hated cowards, and liked clever people——people who could answer him after his own fashion. Nearly everybody was afraid of his tongue and of him. He knew too much; which was a crime.

  "I can find out," he replied, showing his teeth a little.

  "Then you're not quite sure yourself, little devilkin?"

  "The girl is a riddle. I am not the great reader of riddles."

  "I didn't call you that. You're only a common little imp."

  Shangois showed his teeth in a malicious smile.

  "Why did you set me the riddle, then?" Ferrol continued, his eyes fixed with apparent carelessness on the other's face.

  "I thought she might have told you the answer."

  "I never asked her the puzzle. Have you?"

  By instinct, and from the notary's reputation, Ferrol knew that he was in the presence of an honest man at least, and he waited most anxiously for an answer, for his fate might hang on it.

  "M'sieu', I have not seen her since yesterday morning."

  "Well, what would you do if you found out about the five thousand dollars?"

  "I would see what happened to it; and afterwards I would see that a girl of Bonaventure did not marry a Protestant, and a thief."

  Ferrol rose from his chair, coughing a little. Walking over to Shangois, he caught him by both ears and shook the shaggy head back and forth.

  "You little scrap of hell," he said in a rage, "if you ever come within fifty feet of me again I'll send you where you came from!"

  Though Shangois's eyes bulged from his head, he answered:

  "I was only ten feet away from you last night under the elm!"

  Suddenly Ferrol's hand slipped down to Shangois's throat. Ferrol's fingers tightened, pressed inwards.

  "Now, see, I know what you mean. Some one has robbed Nicolas Lavilette of five thousand dollars. You dare to charge me with it, curse you. Let me see if there's any more lies on your tongue!"

  With the violence of the pressure Shangois's tongue was forced out of his mouth.

  Suddenly a paroxysm of coughing seized Ferrol, and he let go and staggered back against the window ledge. Shangois was transformed——an animal. No human being had ever seen him as he was at this moment. The fingers of his one hand opened and shut convulsively, his arms worked up and down, his face twitched, his teeth showed like a beast's as he glared at Ferrol. He looked as though he were about to spring upon the now helpless man. But up from the garden below there came the sound of a voice——Christine's——singing.

  His face quieted, and his body came to its natural pose again, though his eyes retained an active malice. He turned to go.

  "Remember what I tell you," said Ferrol: "if you publish that lie, you'll not live to hear it go about. I mean what I say." Blood showed upon his lips, and a tiny little stream flowed down the corner of his mouth. Whenever he felt that warm fluid on his tongue he was certain of his doom, and the horror of slowly dying oppressed him, angered him. It begot in him a desire to end it all. He had a hatred of suicide; but there were other ways. "I'll have your life, or you'll have mine. I'm not to be played with," he added.

  The sentences were broken by coughing, and his handkerchief was wet and red.

  "It is no concern of the world," answered Shangois, stretching up his throat, for he still felt the pressure of Ferrol's fingers——"only of the girl and her brother. The girl——I saved her once before from your friend Vanne Castine, and I will save her from you——but, yes! It is nothing to the world, to Bonaventure, that you are a robber; it is everything to her. You are all robbers——you English——cochons!"

  He opened the door and went out. Ferrol was about to follow him, but he had a sudden fit of weakness, and he caught up a pillow, and, throwing it on the chest where Shangois had sat, stretched himself upon it. He lay still for quite a long time, and presently fell into a doze. In those days no event made a lasting impression on him. When it was over it ended, so far as concerned any disturbing remembrances of it. He was awakened (he could not have slept for more than fifteen minutes) by a tapping at his door, and his name spoken softly. He went to the door and opened it. It was Christine. He thought she seemed pale, also that she seemed nervous; but her eyes were full of light and fire, and there was no mistaking the look in her face: it was all for him. He set down her agitation to the adventure they were about to make together. He stepped back, as if inviting her to enter, but she shook her head.

  "No, not this morning. I will meet you at the old mill in half an hour. The parish is all mad about the Rebellion, and no one will notice or talk of anything else. I have the best pair of horses in the stable; and we can drive it in two hours, easy."

  She took a paper from her pocket.

  "This is——the——license," she added, and she blushed. Then, with a sudden impulse, she stepped inside the room, threw her arms about his neck and kissed him, and he clasped her to his breast.

  "My darling Tom!" she said, and then hastened away, with tears in her eyes.

  He saw the tears. "I wonder what they were for?" he said musingly, as he opened up the official blue paper. "For joy?" He laughed a little uneasily as he said it. His eyes ran through the document.

  "The Honourable Tom Ferrol, of Stavely Castle, County Galway, Ireland, bachelor, and Christine Marie Lavilette, of the Township of Bonaventure, in the Province of Lower Canada, spinster, Are hereby granted," etc., etc., etc., "according to the laws of the Province of Upper Canada," etc., etc., etc.

  He put it in his pocket.

  "For better or for worse, then," he said, and descended the stairs.

  Presently, as he went through the village, he noticed signs of hostility to himself. Cries of Vive la Canada! Vive la France! a bas l'Anglais! came to him out of the murmuring and excitement. But the Regimental Surgeon took off his cap to him, very conspicuously advancing to meet him, and they exchanged a few words.

  "By the way, monsieur," the Regimental Surgeon added, as he took his leave, "I knew of this some days ago, and, being a justice of the peace, it was my duty to inform the authorities——yes of course! One must do one's duty in any case," he said, in imitation of English bluffness, and took his leave.

  Ten minutes later Christine and Ferrol were on their way to the English province to be married.

  That afternoon at three o'clock, as they left the little English-speaking village man and wife, they heard something which startled them both. It was a bear-trainer, singing to his bear the same weird song, without words, which Vanne Castine sang to Michael. Over in another street they could see the bear on his hind feet, dancing, but they could not see the man.

  Christine glanced at Ferrol anxiously, for she was nervous and excited, though her face had also a look of exultant happiness.

  "No, it's not Castine!" he said, as if in reply to her look.

  In a vague way, however, she felt it to be ominous.

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