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- WHITE LIES - 3/77 -
camp, came a letter into the camp. His mother was dead after a short illness. This was a terrible blow to the simple, rugged soldier, who had never had much time nor inclination to flirt with a lot of girls, and toughen his heart. He came back to Paris honored and rich, but downcast. The old home, empty of his mother, seemed to him not to have the old look. It made him sadder. To cheer him up they brought him much money. The widow's trade had taken a wonderful start the last few years, and she had been playing the same game as he had, living on ten-pence a day, and saving all for him. This made him sadder, if anything.
"What," said he, "have we both been scraping all this dross together for? I would give it all to sit one hour by the fire, with her hand in mine, and hear her say, 'Scamp, you made me unhappy when you were young, but I have lived to be proud of you.'"
He applied for active service, no matter what: obtained at once this post in Brittany, and threw himself into it with that honest zeal and activity, which are the best earthly medicine for all our griefs. He was busy writing, when young Riviere first presented himself. He looked up for a moment, and eyed him, to take his measure; then put into his hand a report by young Nicole, a subordinate filling a post of the same nature as Riviere's; and bade him analyze that report on the spot: with this he instantly resumed his own work.
Edouard Riviere was an adept at this sort of task, and soon handed him a neat analysis. Raynal ran his eye over it, nodded cold approval, and told him to take this for the present as a guide as to his own duties. He then pointed to a map on which Riviere's district was marked in blue ink, and bade him find the centre of it. Edouard took a pair of compasses off the table, and soon discovered that the village of Beaurepaire was his centre. "Then quarter yourself at Beaurepaire; and good-day," said Raynal.
The chateau was in sight from Riviere's quarters, and he soon learned that it belonged to a royalist widow and her daughters, who all three held themselves quite aloof from the rest of the world. "Ah," said the young citizen, "I see. If these rococo citizens play that game with me, I shall have to take them down." Thus a fresh peril menaced this family, on whose hearts and fortunes such heavy blows had fallen.
One evening our young official, after a day spent in the service of the country, deigned to take a little stroll to relieve the cares of administration. He imprinted on his beardless face the expression of a wearied statesman, and strolled through an admiring village. The men pretended veneration from policy; the women, whose views of this great man were shallower but more sincere, smiled approval of his airs; and the young puppy affected to take no notice of either sex.
Outside the village, Publicola suddenly encountered two young ladies, who resembled nothing he had hitherto met with in his district; they were dressed in black, and with extreme simplicity; but their easy grace and composure, and the refined sentiment of their gentle faces, told at a glance they belonged to the high nobility. Publicola divined them at once, and involuntarily raised his hat to so much beauty and dignity, instead of poking it with a finger as usual. On this the ladies instantly courtesied to him after the manner of their party, with a sweep and a majesty, and a precision of politeness, that the pup would have laughed at if he had heard of it; but seeing it done, and well done, and by lovely women of rank, he was taken aback by it, and lifted his hat again, and bowed again after he had gone by, and was generally flustered. In short, instead of a member of the Consular Government saluting private individuals of a decayed party that existed only by sufferance, a handsome, vain, good-natured boy had met two self- possessed young ladies of distinction and breeding, and had cut the usual figure.
For the next hundred yards his cheeks burned and his vanity cooled. But bumptiousness is elastic in France, as in England, and doubtless among the Esquimaux. "Well, they are pretty girls," says he to himself. "I never saw two such pretty girls together; they will do for me to flirt with while I am banished to this Arcadia." Banished from school, I beg to observe.
And "awful beauty" being no longer in sight, Mr. Edouard resolved he would flirt with them to their hearts' content. But there are ladies with whom a certain preliminary is required before you can flirt with them. You must be on speaking terms. How was this to be managed?
He used to watch at his window with a telescope, and whenever the sisters came out of their own grounds, which unfortunately was not above twice a week, he would throw himself in their way by the merest accident, and pay them a dignified and courteous salute, which he had carefully got up before a mirror in the privacy of his own chamber.
One day, as he took off his hat to the young ladies, there broke from one of them a smile, so sudden, sweet, and vivid, that he seemed to feel it smite him first on the eyes then in the heart. He could not sleep for this smile.
Yet he had seen many smilers; but to be sure most of them smiled without effect, because they smiled eternally; they seemed cast with their mouths open, and their pretty teeth forever in sight; and this has a saddening influence on a man of sense--when it has any. But here a fair, pensive face had brightened at sight of him; a lovely countenance, on which circumstances, not nature, had impressed gravity, had sprung back to its natural gayety for a moment, and had thrilled and bewitched the beholder.
The next Sunday he went to church--and there worshipped--whom? Cupid. He smarted for his heathenism; for the young ladies went with higher motives, and took no notice of him. They lowered their long silken lashes over one breviary, and scarcely observed the handsome citizen. Meantime he, contemplating their pious beauty with earthly eyes, was drinking long draughts of intoxicating passion. And when after the service they each took an arm of Dr. Aubertin, and he with the air of an admiral convoying two ships choke-full of specie, conducted his precious charge away home, our young citizen felt jealous, and all but hated the worthy doctor.
This went on till he became listless and dejected on the days he did not see them. Then he asked himself whether he was not a cowardly fool to keep at such a distance. After all he was a man in authority. His friendship was not to be despised, least of all by a family suspected of disaffection to the state.
He put on his glossy beaver with enormous brim, high curved; his blue coat with brass buttons; his white waistcoat, gray breeches, and top-boots; and marched up to the chateau of Beaurepaire, and sent in his card with his name and office inscribed.
Jacintha took it, bestowed a glance of undisguised admiration on the young Adonis, and carried it to the baroness. That lady sent her promptly down again with a black-edged note to this effect.
Highly flattered by Monsieur de Riviere's visit, the baroness must inform him that she receives none but old acquaintances, in the present grief of the family, and of the KINGDOM.
Young Riviere was cruelly mortified by this rebuff. He went off hurriedly, grinding his teeth with rage.
"Cursed aristocrats! We have done well to pull you down, and we will have you lower still. How I despise myself for giving any one the chance to affront me thus. The haughty old fool; if she had known her interest, she would have been too glad to make a powerful friend. These royalists are in a ticklish position; I can tell her that. She calls me De Riviere; that implies nobody without a 'De' to their name would have the presumption to visit her old tumble- down house. Well, it is a lesson; I am a republican, and the Commonwealth trusts and honors me; yet I am so ungrateful as to go out of the way to be civil to her enemies, to royalists; as if those worn-out creatures had hearts, as if they could comprehend the struggle that took place in my mind between duty, and generosity to the fallen, before I could make the first overture to their acquaintance; as if they could understand the politeness of the heart, or anything nobler than curving and ducking and heartless etiquette. This is the last notice I will ever take of that old woman, unless it is to denounce her."
He walked home to the town very fast, his heart boiling, and his lips compressed, and his brow knitted.
To this mood succeeded a sullen and bitter one. He was generous, but vain, and his love had humiliated him so bitterly, he resolved to tear it out of his heart. He absented himself from church; he met the young ladies no more. He struggled fiercely with his passion; he went about dogged, silent, and sighing. Presently he devoted his leisure hours to shooting partridges instead of ladies. And he was right; partridges cannot shoot back; whereas beautiful women, like Cupid, are all archers more or less, and often with one arrow from eye or lip do more execution than they have suffered from several discharges of our small shot.
In these excursions, Edouard was generally accompanied by a thick- set rustic called Dard, who, I believe, purposes to reveal his own character to you, and so save me that trouble.
One fine afternoon, about four o'clock, this pair burst remorselessly through a fence, and landed in the road opposite Bigot's Auberge; a long low house, with "ICI ON LOGE A PIED ET A CHEVAL," written all across it in gigantic letters. Riviere was for moving homeward, but Dard halted and complained dismally of "the soldier's gripes." The statesman had never heard of that complaint, so Dard explained that the VULGAR name for it was hunger. "And only smell," said he, "the soup is just fit to come off the fire."
Riviere smiled sadly, but consented to deign to eat a morsel in the porch. Thereat Dard dashed wildly into the kitchen.
They dined at one little round table, each after his fashion. When Dard could eat no more, he proceeded to drink; and to talk in proportion. Riviere, lost in his own thoughts, attended to him as men of business do to a babbling brook; until suddenly from the mass of twaddle broke forth a magic word--Beaurepaire; then the languid lover pricked up his ears and found Mr. Dard was abusing that noble family right and left. Young Riviere inquired what ground of offence they had given HIM. "I'll tell you," said Dard; "they impose on Jacintha; and so she imposes on me." Then observing he had at last gained his employer's ear, he became prodigiously loquacious, as such people generally are when once they get upon their own griefs.
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