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- When Valmond Came to Pontiac, Volume 2. - 1/12 -
[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]
WHEN VALMOND CAME TO PONTIAC
The Story of a Lost Napoleon
By Gilbert Parker
Prince or plebeian, Valmond played his part with equal aplomb at the simple home of Elise Malboir and at the Manoir Hilaire, where Madame Chalice received him. His dress had nothing of the bizarre on this occasion. He was in black-long coat, silk stockings, the collar of his waistcoat faced with white, his neckerchief white and full, his enamelled shoes adorned with silver buckles. His present repose and decorum contrasted strangely with the fanciful display at his first introduction. Madame Chalice approved instantly, for though the costume was, in itself, an affectation, previous to the time by a generation, it was in the picture, was sedately refined. She welcomed him in the salon where many another distinguished man had been entertained--from Frontenac, and Vaudreuil, down to Sir Guy Carleton. The Manor had belonged to her husband's people seventy-five years before, and though, as a banker in New York, Monsieur Chalice had become an American of the Americans, at her request he had bought back from a kinsman the old place, unchanged, furniture and all. Bringing the antique plate, china, and bric-a-brac, made in France when Henri Quatre was king, she fared away to Quebec, set the rude mansion in order, and was happy for a whole summer, as was her husband, the best of fishermen and sportsmen. The Manor House stood on a knoll, behind which, steppe on steppe, climbed the hills, till they ended in Dalgrothe Mountain. Beyond the mountain were unexplored regions, hill and valley floating into hill and valley, lost in a miasmic haze, ruddy, silent, untenanted, save, mayhap, by the strange people known as the Little Good Folk of the Scarlet Hills.
The house had been built in the seventeenth century, and the walls were very thick, to keep out both cold and attack. Beneath the high-pointed roof were big dormer windows, and huge chimneys flanked each side of the house. The great roof gave a sense of crouching or hovering, for warmth or in menace. As Valmond entered the garden, Madame Chalice was leaning over the lower half of the entrance door, which opened latitudinally, and was hung on large iron hinges of quaint design, made by some seventeenth- century forgeron. Behind her deepened hospitably the spacious hall, studded and heavy beamed, with its unpainted pine ceiling toned to a good brown by smoke and time. Caribou and moose antlers hung along the wall, with arquebuses, powder-horns, big shot-bags, swords, and even pieces of armour, such as Cartier brought with him from St. Malo.
Madame Chalice looked out of this ancient avenue, a contrast, yet a harmony; for, though her dress was modern, her person had a rare touch of the archaic, and fitted into the picture like a piece of beautiful porcelain, coloured long before the art of making fadeless colours was lost.
There was an amused, meditative smiling at her lips, a kind of wonder, the tender flush of a new experience. She turned, and, stepping softly into the salon, seated herself near the immense chimney, in a heavily carved chair, her feet lost in rich furs on the polished floor. A quaint table at her hand was dotted with rare old books and miniatures, and behind her ticked an ancient clock in a tall mahogany case.
Valmond came forward, hat in hand, and raised to his lips the fingers she gave him. He did it with the vagueness of one in a dream, she thought, and she neither understood nor relished his uncomplimentary abstraction; so she straightway determined to give him some troublesome moments.
"I have waited to drink my coffee with you," she said, motioning him to a seat; "and you may smoke a cigarette, if you wish."
Her eyes wandered over his costume with critical satisfaction.
He waved his hand slightly, declining the permission, and looked at her with an intent seriousness, which took no account of the immediate charm of her presence.
"I'd like to ask you a question," he said, without preamble. She was amused, interested. Here was an unusual man, who ignored the conventional preliminary nothings, beating down the grass before the play, as it were.
"I was never good at catechism," she answered. "But I will be as hospitable as I can."
"I've felt," he said, "that you can--can see through things; that you can balance them, that you get at all sides, and--"
She had been reading Napoleon's letters this very afternoon.
"Full squared?" she interrupted quizzically.
"As the Great Emperor said," he answered. "A woman sees farther than a man, and if she has judgment as well, she is the best prophet in the world."
"It sounds distinctly like a compliment," she answered. "You are trying to break that square!"
She was mystified; he was different from any man she had ever entertained. She was not half sure she liked it. Yet, if he were in very truth a prince--she thought of his debut in flowered waistcoat, panama hat, and enamelled boots!--she should take this confidence as a compliment; if he were a barber, she could not resent it; she could not waste wit or time; she could not even, in extremity, call the servant to show the barber out; and in any case she was too comfortably interested to worry herself with speculation.
He was very much in earnest. "I want to ask you," he said, "what is the thing most needed to make a great idea succeed."
"I have never had a great idea," she replied.
He looked at her eagerly, with youthful, questioning eyes.
"How simple, and yet how astute he is!" she thought, remembering the event of yesterday.
"I thought you had--I was sure you had," he said in a troubled sort of way. He did not see that she was eluding him.
"I mean, I never had a fixed and definite idea that I proceeded to apply, as you have done," she explained tentatively. "But--well, I suppose that the first requisite for success is absolute belief in the idea; that it be part of one's life; to suffer for, to fight for, to die for, if need be--though that sounds like a handbook of moral mottoes, doesn't it?"
"That's it, that's it," he said. "The thing must be in your bones --hein?"
"Also in--your blood--hein?" she rejoined slowly and meaningly, looking over the top of her coffee-cup at him. Somehow again the plebeian quality in that hein grated on her, and she could not resist the retort.
"What!" said he confusedly, plunging into another pitfall. She had challenged him, and he knew it. "Nothing what-ever," she answered, with an urbanity that defied the suggestion of malice. Yet, now that she remembered, she had sweetly challenged one of a royal house for the like lapse into the vulgar tongue. A man should not be beheaded because of a what. So she continued more seriously: "The idea must be himself, all of him, born with him, the rightful output of his own nature, the thing he must inevitably do, or waste his life."
She looked him honestly in the eyes. She had spoken with the soft irony of truth, the blind tyranny of the just. She had meant to test him here and there by throwing little darts of satire, and yet he made her serious and candid in spite of herself. He was of kin to her in some part of his nature. He did not concern her as a man of personal or social possibilities--merely as an active originality. Leaning back languidly, she was eyeing him closely from under drooping lids, smiling, too, in an unimportant sort of way, as if what she had said was a trifle.
Consummate liar and comedian, or true man and no pretender, his eyes did not falter. They were absorbed, as if in eager study of a theme.
"Yes, yes, that's it; and if he has it, what next?" said he meaningly.
"Well, then, opportunity, joined to coolness, knowledge of men, power of combination, strategy, and"--she paused, and a purely feminine curiosity impelled her to add suggestively--"and a woman."
He nodded. "And a woman," he repeated after her musingly, and not turning it to account cavalierly, as he might have done. He was taking himself with a simple seriousness that appealed to her.
"You may put strategy out of the definition, leaving in the woman," she continued ironically.
He felt the point, and her demure dart struck home. But he saw what an ally she might make. Tremendous possibilities moved before him. His heart beat faster than it did yesterday when the old sergeant faced him. Here was beauty--he admired that; power--he wished for that. What might he not accomplish, no matter how wild his move, with this wonderful creature as his friend, his ally, his----He paused, for this house had a master as well as a mistress.
"We will leave in the woman," he said quietly, yet with a sort of trouble in his face.
"In your idea?" was the negligent question.
"Where is the woman?" insinuated the soft, bewildering voice.
"Here!" he answered emotionally, and he believed it was the truth. She stood looking meditatively out of the window, not at him.
"In Pontiac?" she asked presently, turning with a child-like surprise. "Ah, yes, yes! I know--one of the people; suitable for Pontiac; but is it wise? She is pretty--but is it wise?"
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