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- The Guest of Quesnay - 20/37 -
had the mighty man found for his disease?
Morning failed to clarify these mysteries; it brought, however, something rare and rich and strange. I allude to the manner of Amedee's approach. The aged gossip-demoniac had to recognise the fact that he could not keep out of my way for ever; there was nothing for it but to put as good a face as possible upon a bad business, and get it over--and the face he selected was a marvel; not less, and in no hasty sense of the word.
It appeared at my door to announce that breakfast waited outside.
Primarily it displayed an expression of serenity, masterly in its assumption that not the least, remotest, dreamiest shadow of danger could possibly be conceived, by the most immoderately pessimistic and sinister imagination, as even vaguely threatening. And for the rest, you have seen a happy young mother teaching first steps to the first-born-- that was Amedee. Radiantly tender, aggressively solicitous, diffusing ineffable sweetness on the air, wreathed in seraphic smiles, beaming caressingly, and aglow with a sacred joy that I should be looking so well, he greeted me in a voice of honey and bowed me to my repast with an unconcealed fondness at once maternal and reverential.
I did not attempt to speak. I came out silently, uncannily fascinated, my eyes fixed upon him, while he moved gently backward, cooing pleasant words about the coffee, but just perceptibly keeping himself out of arm's reach until I had taken my seat. When I had done that, he leaned over the table and began to set useless things nearer my plate with frankly affectionate care. It chanced that in "making a long arm" to reach something I did want, my hand (of which the fingers happened to be closed) passed rather impatiently beneath his nose. The madonna expression changed instantly to one of horror, he uttered a startled croak, and took a surprisingly long skip backward, landing in the screen of honeysuckle vines, which, he seemed to imagine, were some new form of hostility attacking him treacherously from the rear. They sagged, but did not break from their fastenings, and his behaviour, as he lay thus entangled, would have contrasted unfavourably in dignity with the actions of a panic-stricken hen in a hammock.
"And so conscience DOES make cowards of us all," I said, with no hope of being understood.
Recovering some measure of mental equilibrium at the same time that he managed to find his feet, he burst into shrill laughter, to which he tried in vain to impart a ring of debonair carelessness.
"Eh, I stumble!" he cried with hollow merriment. "I fall about and faint with fatigue! Pah! But it is nothing: truly!"
"Fatigue!" I turned a bitter sneer upon him. "Fatigue! And you just out of bed!"
His fat hands went up palm outward; his heroic laughter was checked as with a sob; an expression of tragic incredulity shone from his eyes. Patently he doubted the evidence of his own ears; could not believe that such black ingratitude existed in the world. "Absalom, O my son Absalom!" was his unuttered cry. His hands fell to his sides; his chin sank wretchedly into its own folds; his shirt-bosom heaved and crinkled; arrows of unspeakable injustice had entered the defenceless breast.
"Just out of bed!" he repeated, with a pathos that would have brought the judge of any court in France down from the bench to kiss him--"And I had risen long, long before the dawn, in the cold and darkness of the night, to prepare the sandwiches of monsieur!"
It was too much for me, or rather, he was. I stalked off to the woods in a state of helpless indignation; mentally swearing that his day of punishment at my hands was only deferred, not abandoned, yet secretly fearing that this very oath might live for no purpose but to convict me of perjury. His talents were lost in the country; he should have sought his fortune in the metropolis. And his manner, as he summoned me that evening to dinner, and indeed throughout the courses, partook of the subtle condescension and careless assurance of one who has but faintly enjoyed some too easy triumph.
I found this so irksome that I might have been goaded into an outbreak of impotent fury, had my attention not been distracted by the curious turn of the professor's malady, which had renewed its painful assault upon him. He came hobbling to table, leaning upon Saffren's shoulder, and made no reference to his singular improvement of the night before-- nor did I. His rheumatism was his own; he might do what he pleased with it! There was no reason why he should confide the cause of its vagaries to me.
Table-talk ran its normal course; a great Pole's philosophy receiving flagellation at the hands of our incorrigible optimist. ("If he could understand," exclaimed Keredec, "that the individual must be immortal before it is born, ha! then this babbler might have writted some intelligence!") On the surface everything was as usual with our trio, with nothing to show any turbulence of under-currents, unless it was a certain alertness in Oliver's manner, a restrained excitement, and the questioning restlessness of his eyes as they sought mine from time to time. Whatever he wished to ask me, he was given no opportunity, for the professor carried him off to work when our coffee was finished. As they departed, the young man glanced back at me over his shoulder, with that same earnest look of interrogation, but it went unanswered by any token or gesture: for though I guessed that he wished to know if Mrs. Harman had spoken of him to me, it seemed part of my bargain with her to give him no sign that I understood.
A note lay beside my plate next morning, addressed in a writing strange to me, one of dashing and vigorous character.
"In the pursuit of thrillingly scientific research," it read, "what with the tumult which possessed me, I forgot to mention the bond that links us; I, too, am a painter, though as yet unhonoured and unhung. It must be only because I lack a gentle hand to guide me. If I might sit beside you as you paint! The hours pass on leaden wings at Quesnay--I could shriek! Do not refuse me a few words of instruction, either in the wildwood, whither I could support your shrinking steps, or, from time to time, as you work in your studio, which (I glean from the instructive Mr. Ferret) is at Les Trois Pigeons. At any hour, at any moment, I will speed to you. I am, sir,
"Yours, if you will but breathe a 'yes,'
To this I returned a reply, as much in her own key as I could write it, putting my refusal on the ground that I was not at present painting in the studio. I added that I hoped her suit might prosper, regretting that I could not be of greater assistance to that end, and concluded with the suggestion that Madame Brossard might entertain an offer for lessons in cooking.
The result of my attempt to echo her vivacity was discomfiting, and I was allowed to perceive that epistolary jocularity was not thought to be my line. It was Miss Elizabeth who gave me this instruction three days later, on the way to Quesnay for "second breakfast." Exercising fairly shame-faced diplomacy, I had avoided dining at the chateau again, but, by arrangement, she had driven over for me this morning in the phaeton.
"Why are you writing silly notes to that child?" she demanded, as soon as we were away from the inn.
"Was it silly?"
"You should know. Do you think that style of humour suitable for a young girl?"
This bewildered me a little. "But there wasn't anything offensive--"
"No?" Miss Elizabeth lifted her eyebrows to a height of bland inquiry. "She mightn't think it rather--well, rough? Your suggesting that she should take cooking lessons?"
"But SHE suggested she might take PAINTING lessons," was my feeble protest. "I only meant to show her I understood that she wanted to get to the inn."
"And why should she care to 'get to the inn'?"
"She seemed interested in a young man who is staying there. 'Interested' is the mildest word for it I can think of."
"Pooh!" Such was Miss Ward's enigmatic retort, and though I begged an explanation I got none. Instead, she quickened the horse's gait and changed the subject.
At the chateau, having a mind to offer some sort of apology, I looked anxiously about for the subject of our rather disquieting conversation, but she was not to be seen until the party assembled at the table, set under an awning on the terrace. Then, to my disappointment, I found no opportunity to speak to her, for her seat was so placed as to make it impossible, and she escaped into the house immediately upon the conclusion of the repast, hurrying away too pointedly for any attempt to detain her--though, as she passed, she sent me one glance of meek reproach which she was at pains to make elaborately distinct.
Again taking me for her neighbour at the table, Miss Elizabeth talked to me at intervals, apparently having nothing, just then, to make up to Mr. Cresson Ingle, but not long after we rose she accompanied him upon some excursion of an indefinite nature, which led her from my sight. Thus, the others making off to cards indoors and what not, I was left to the perusal of the eighteenth century facade of the chateau, one of the most competent restorations in that part of France, and of the liveliest interest to the student or practitioner of architecture.
Mrs. Harman had not appeared at all, having gone to call upon some one at Dives, I was told, and a servant informing me (on inquiry) that Miss Elliott had retired to her room, I was thrust upon my own devices indeed, a condition already closely associated in my mind with this picturesque spot. The likeliest of my devices--or, at least, the one I hit upon--was in the nature of an unostentatious retreat.
I went home.
However, as the day was spoiled for work, I chose a roundabout way, in fact the longest, and took the high-road to Dives, but neither the road nor the town itself (when I passed through it) rewarded my vague hope that I might meet Mrs. Harman, and I strode the long miles in considerable disgruntlement, for it was largely in that hope that I had gone to Quesnay. It put me in no merrier mood to find Miss Elizabeth's phaeton standing outside the inn in charge of a groom, for my vanity encouraged the supposition that she had come out of a fear that my unceremonious departure from Quesnay might have indicated that I was "hurt," or considered myself neglected; and I dreaded having to make explanations.
My apprehensions were unfounded; it was not Miss Elizabeth who had come
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