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- The Guest of Quesnay - 5/37 -
any encounter with the lady to chance, and as the by-paths of the country-side were many and intricate, I intended, without ungallantry, to render the chance remote. George himself had just sailed on a business trip to America, as I knew from her last missive; and until his return, I should put in all my time at painting and nothing else, though I liked his sister, as I have said, and thought of her--often.
Amedee doubted my sincerity, however, for he laughed incredulously.
"Eh, well, monsieur enjoys saying it!"
"Certainly. It is a pleasure to say what one means."
"But monsieur could not mean it. Monsieur will call at the chateau in the morning"--the complacent varlet prophesied--"as early as it will be polite. I am sure of that. Monsieur is not at all an old man; no, not yet! Even if he were, aha! no one could possess the friendship of that wonderful Madame d'Armand and remain away from the chateau."
"Madame d'Armand?" I said. "That is not the name. You mean Mademoiselle Ward."
"No, no!" He shook his head and his fat cheeks bulged with a smile which I believe he intended to express a respectful roguishness. "Mademoiselle Ward" (he pronounced it "Ware") "is magnificent; every one must fly to obey when she opens her mouth. If she did not like the ocean there below the chateau, the ocean would have to move! It needs only a glance to perceive that Mademoiselle Ward is a great lady--but MADAME D'ARMAND! AHA!" He rolled his round eyes to an effect of unspeakable admiration, and with a gesture indicated that he would have kissed his hand to the stars, had that been properly reverential to Madame d'Armand. "But monsieur knows very well for himself!"
"Monsieur knows that you are very confusing--even for a maitre d'hotel. We were speaking of the present chatelaine of Quesnay, Mademoiselle Ward. I have never heard of Madame d'Armand."
"Monsieur is serious?"
"Truly!" I answered, making bold to quote his shibboleth.
"Then monsieur has truly much to live for. Truly!" he chuckled openly, convinced that he had obtained a marked advantage in a conflict of wits, shaking his big head from side to side with an exasperating air of knowingness. "Ah, truly! When that lady drives by, some day, in the carriage from the chateau--eh? Then monsieur will see how much he has to live for. Truly, truly, truly!"
He had cleared the table, and now, with a final explosion of the word which gave him such immoderate satisfaction, he lifted the tray and made one of his precipitate departures.
"Amedee," I said, as he slackened down to his sidelong leisure.
"Who is Madame d'Armand?"
"A guest of Mademoiselle Ward at Quesnay. In fact, she is in charge of the chateau, since Mademoiselle Ward is, for the time, away."
"Is she a Frenchwoman?"
"It seems not. In fact, she is an American, though she dresses with so much of taste. Ah, Madame Brossard admits it, and Madame Brossard knows the art of dressing, for she spends a week of every winter in Rouen--and besides there is Trouville itself only some kilometres distant. Madame Brossard says that Mademoiselle Ward dresses with richness and splendour and Madame d'Armand with economy, but beauty. Those were the words used by Madame Brossard. Truly."
"Madame d'Armand's name is French," I observed.
"Yes, that is true," said Amedee thoughtfully. "No one can deny it; it is a French name." He rested the tray upon a stump near by and scratched his head. "I do not understand how that can be," he continued slowly. "Jean Ferret, who is chief gardener at the chateau, is an acquaintance of mine. We sometimes have a cup of cider at Pere Baudry's, a kilometre down the road from here; and Jean Ferret has told me that she is an American. And yet, as you say, monsieur, the name is French. Perhaps she is French after all."
"I believe," said I, "that if I struggled a few days over this puzzle, I might come to the conclusion that Madame d'Armand is an American lady who has married a Frenchman."
The old man uttered an exclamation of triumph.
"Ha! without doubt! Truly she must be an American lady who has married a Frenchman. Monsieur has already solved the puzzle. Truly, truly!" And he trulied himself across the darkness, to emerge in the light of the open door of the kitchen with the word still rumbling in his throat.
Now for a time there came the clinking of dishes, sounds as of pans and kettles being scoured, the rolling gutturals of old Gaston, the cook, and the treble pipings of young "Glouglou," his grandchild and scullion. After a while the oblong of light from the kitchen door disappeared; the voices departed; the stillness of the dark descended, and with it that unreasonable sense of pathos which night in the country brings to the heart of a wanderer. Then, out of the lonely silence, there issued a strange, incongruous sound as an execrable voice essayed to produce the semblance of an air odiously familiar about the streets of Paris some three years past, and I became aware of a smell of some dreadful thing burning. Beneath the arbour I perceived a glowing spark which seemed to bear a certain relation to an oval whitish patch suggesting the front of a shirt. It was Amedee, at ease, smoking his cigarette after the day's work and convinced that he was singing.
"Pour qu'j'finisse Mon service Au Tonkin je suis parti-- Ah! quel beau pays, mesdames! C'est l'paradis des p'tites femmes!"
I rose from the chair on my little porch, to go to bed; but I was reminded of something, and called to him.
"Monsieur?" his voice came briskly.
"How often do you see your friend, Jean Ferret, the gardener of Quesnay?"
"Frequently, monsieur. To-morrow morning I could easily carry a message if--"
"That is precisely what I do not wish. And you may as well not mention me at all when you meet him."
"It is understood. Perfectly."
"If it is well understood, there will be a beautiful present for a good maitre d'hotel some day."
"Thank you, monsieur."
"Good night, Amedee."
"Good night, monsieur."
Falling to sleep has always been an intricate matter with me: I liken it to a nightly adventure in an enchanted palace. Weary-limbed and with burning eyelids, after long waiting in the outer court of wakefulness, I enter a dim, cool antechamber where the heavy garment of the body is left behind and where, perhaps, some acquaintance or friend greets me with a familiar speech or a bit of nonsense--or an unseen orchestra may play music that I know. From here I go into a spacious apartment where the air and light are of a fine clarity, for it is the hall of revelations, and in it the secrets of secrets are told, mysteries are resolved, perplexities cleared up, and sometimes I learn what to do about a picture that has bothered me. This is where I would linger, for beyond it I walk among crowding fantasies, delusions, terrors and shame, to a curtain of darkness where they take my memory from me, and I know nothing of my own adventures until I am pushed out of a secret door into the morning sunlight. Amedee was the acquaintance who met me in the antechamber to-night. He remarked that Madame d'Armand was the most beautiful woman in the world, and vanished. And in the hall of revelations I thought that I found a statue of her--but it was veiled. I wished to remove the veil, but a passing stranger stopped and told me laughingly that the veil was all that would ever be revealed of her to me--of her, or any other woman!
I was up with the birds in the morning; had my breakfast with them--a very drowsy-eyed Amedee assisting--and made off for the forest to get the sunrise through the branches, a pack on my back and three sandwiches for lunch in my pocket. I returned only with the failing light of evening, cheerfully tired and ready for a fine dinner and an early bed, both of which the good inn supplied. It was my daily programme; a healthy life "far from the world," as Amedee said, and I was sorry when the serpent entered and disturbed it, though he was my own. He is a pet of mine; has been with me since my childhood. He leaves me when I live alone, for he loves company, but returns whenever my kind are about me. There are many names for snakes of his breed, but, to deal charitably with myself, I call mine Interest-In-Other-People's-Affairs.
One evening I returned to find a big van from Dives, the nearest railway station, drawn up in the courtyard at the foot of the stairs leading to the gallery, and all of the people of the inn, from Madame Brossard (who directed) to Glouglou (who madly attempted the heaviest pieces), busily installing trunks, bags, and packing-cases in the suite engaged for the "great man of science" on the second floor of the east wing of the building. Neither the great man nor his companion was to be seen, however, both having retired to their rooms immediately upon their arrival--so Amedee informed me, as he wiped his brow after staggering up the steps under a load of books wrapped in sacking.
I made my evening ablutions removing a Joseph's coat of dust and paint; and came forth from my pavilion, hoping that Professor Keredec and his friend would not mind eating in the same garden with a man in a corduroy jacket and knickerbockers; but the gentlemen continued invisible to the public eye, and mine was the only table set for dinner in the garden. Up-stairs the curtains were carefully drawn across all the windows of the east wing; little leaks of orange, here and there, betraying the lights within. Glouglou, bearing a tray of covered dishes, was just entering the salon of the "Grande Suite," and the door closed quickly
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