"Parbleu," said Aristide.
Miss Anne went on to talk of Jean, a miraculous infant of infinite graces and accomplishments. Up to now he had been the sturdiest and merriest fellow.
"At nine months old he saw that life was a big joke," said Aristide. "How he used to laugh."
"There's not much laugh left in him, poor darling," she sighed. And she told how he had caught a chill which had gone to his lungs and how the night before last she thought she had lost him.
She sat up and listened. "Will you excuse me for a moment?"
She went out and presently returned, standing at the doorway. "He is still asleep. Would you like to see him? Only"—she put her fingers on her lips—"you must be very, very quiet."
He followed her into the next room and looked about him shyly, recognizing that it was Miss Anne's own bedroom; and there, lying in a little cot beside the big bed, he saw the sleeping child, his brown face flushed with fever. He had a curly shock of black hair and well formed features. An old woolly lamb nose to nose with him shared his pillow. Aristide drew from his pocket a Teddy bear, and, having asked Miss Anne's permission with a glance, laid it down gently on the coverlid.
His eyes were wet when they returned to the parlour. So were Miss Anne's. The Teddy bear was proof of the simplicity of his faith in her.
After a while, conscious of hunger, he rose to take leave. He must be getting back to St. Albans. But might he be permitted to come back later in the afternoon? Miss Anne reddened. It outraged her sense of hospitality to send a guest away from her house on a three-mile walk for food. And yet——
"Mr. Pujol," she said bravely, "I would ask you to stay to luncheon if I had anything to offer you. But I am single handed, and, with Jean's illness, I haven't given much thought to housekeeping. The woman who does some of the rough work won't be back till six. I hate to let you go all those miles—I am so distressed——"
"But, mademoiselle," said Aristide. "You have some bread. You have water. It has been a banquet many a day to me, and this time it would be the most precious banquet of all."
"I can do a little better than that," faltered Miss Anne. "I have plenty of eggs and there is bacon."
"Eggs—bacon!" cried Aristide, his bright eyes twinkling and his hands going up in the familiar gesture. "That is superb. Tiens! you shall not do the cooking. You shall rest. I will make you an omelette au lard—ah!"—he kissed the tips of his fingers—"such an omelette as you have not eaten since you were in France—and even there I doubt whether you have ever eaten an omelette like mine." His soul simmering with omelette, he darted towards the door. "The kitchen—it is this way?"
"But, Mr. Pujol——!" Miss Anne laughed, protestingly. Who could be angry with the vivid and impulsive creature?
"It is the room opposite Jean's—not so?"
She followed him into the clean little kitchen, half amused, half flustered. Already he had hooked off the top of the kitchen range. "Ah! a good fire. And your frying-pan?" He dived into the scullery.
"Please don't be in such a hurry," she pleaded. "You will have made the omelette before I've had time to lay the cloth, and it will get cold. Besides, I want to learn how to do it."
"Tres bien," said Aristide, laying down the frying-pan. "You shall see how it is made—the omelette of the universe."
So he helped Miss Anne to lay the cloth on the gate-legged oak table in the parlour and to set it out with bread and butter and the end of a tinned tongue and a couple of bottles of stout. After which they went back to the little kitchen, where in a kind of giggling awe she watched him shred the bacon and break the eggs with his thin, skilful fingers and perform his magic with the frying-pan and turn out the great golden creation into the dish.
"Now," said he, pulling her in his enthusiasm, "to table while it is hot."
Miss Anne laughed. She lost her head ever so little. The days had been drab and hopeless of late and she was still young; so, if she felt excited at this unhoped for inrush of life and colour, who shall blame her? The light sparkled once more in her eyes and the pink of her naturally florid complexion shone on her cheek as they sat down to table.
"It is I who help it," said Aristide. "Taste that." He passed the plate and waited, with the artist's expectation for her approval.
It was indeed the perfection of omelette, all its suave juiciness contained in film as fine as goldbeater's skin.
"Yes, it's good." He was delighted, childlike, at the success of his cookery. His gaiety kept the careworn woman in rare laughter during the meal. She lost all consciousness that he was a strange man plunged down suddenly in the midst of her old maidish existence—and a strange man, too, who had once behaved in a most outrageous fashion. But that was ever the way of Aristide. The moment you yielded to his attraction he made you feel that you had known him for years. His fascination possessed you.
"Miss Anne," said he, smoking a cigarette, at her urgent invitation, "is there a poor woman in Beverly Stoke with whom I could lodge?"
She gasped. "You lodge in Beverly Stoke?"
"Why yes," said Aristide, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. "I am engaged in the city from ten to five every day. I can't come here and go back to London every night, and I can't stay a whole week without my little Jean. And I have my duty to Jean. I stand to him in the relation of a father. I must help you to nurse him and make him better. I must give him soup and apples and ice cream and——"
"You would kill the darling in five minutes," interrupted Miss Anne.
He waved his forefinger in the air. "No, no, I have nursed the sick in my time. My dear friend," said he, with a change of tone, "when did you go to bed last?"
"I don't know," she answered in some confusion. "The district nurse has helped me—and the doctor has been very good. Jean has turned the corner now. Please don't worry. And as for your coming to live down here, it's absurd."
"Of course, if you formally forbid me to do so, mademoiselle, and if you don't want to see me——"
"How can you say a thing like that? Haven't I shown you to-day that you are welcome?"
"Dear Miss Anne," said he, "forgive me. But what is that great vast town of London to me who know nobody there? Here in this tiny spot is concentrated all I care for in the world. Why shouldn't I live in it?"
"You would be so dreadfully uncomfortable," said Miss Anne, weakly.
"Bah!" cried Aristide. "You talk of discomfort to an old client of L'Hotel de la Belle Etoile?"
"The Hotel of the Beautiful Star? Where is that?" asked the innocent lady.
"Wherever you like," said Aristide. "Your bed is dry leaves and your bed-curtains, if you demand luxury, are a hedge, and your ceiling, if you are fortunate, is ornamented with stars."
She looked at him wide-eyed, in great concern.
"Do you mean that you have ever been homeless?"
He laughed. "I think I've been everything imaginable, except married."
"Hush!" she said. "Listen!" Her keen ear had caught a child's cry. "It's Jean. I must go."
She hurried out. Aristide prepared to light another cigarette. But a second before the application of the flaring match an idea struck him. He blew out the match, replaced the cigarette in his case, and with a dexterity that revealed the professional of years ago, began to clear the table. He took the things noiselessly into the kitchen, shut the door, and master of the kitchen and scullery washed up. Then, the most care-free creature in the world, he stole down the stone passage into the wilderness of Beverly Stoke.
An hour afterwards he knocked at the front door, Anne Honeywood admitted him.
"I have arranged with the good Mrs. Buttershaw. She lives a hundred yards down the road. I bring my baggage to-morrow evening."
Anne regarded him in a humorous, helpless way. "I can't prevent you," she said, "but I can give you a piece of advice."
"What is it?"
"Don't wash up for Mrs. Buttershaw."
* * * * *
So it came to pass that Aristide Pujol took up his residence at Beverly Stoke, trudging every morning three miles to catch his business train at St. Albans, and trudging back every evening three miles to Beverly Stoke. Every morning he ran into the cottage for a sight of little Jean and every evening after a digestion-racking meal prepared by Mrs. Buttershaw he went to the cottage armed with toys and weird and injudicious food for little Jean and demanded an account of the precious infant's doings during the day. Gradually Jean recovered of his congestion, being a sturdy urchin, and, to Aristide's delight, resumed the normal life of childhood.
"Moi, je suis papa," said Aristide. "He has got to speak French, and he had better begin at once. It is absurd that anyone born between Salon and Arles should not speak French and Provencal; we'll leave Provencal till later. Moi, je suis papa, Jean. Say papa."
"I don't quite see how he can call you that, Mr. Pujol," said Anne, with the suspicion of a flush on her cheek.
"And why not? Has the poor child any other papa in the whole wide world? And at four years old not to have a father is heart-breaking. Do you want us to bring him up an orphan? No. You shan't be an orphan, mon brave," he continued, bending over the child and putting his little hands against his bearded face, "you couldn't bear such a calamity, could you? And so you will call me papa."
"Papa," said Jean, with a grin.
"There, he has settled it," said Aristide. "Moi je suis papa. And you, mademoiselle?"
"I am Auntie Anne," she replied demurely.
Saturday afternoons and Sundays were Aristide's days of delight. He could devote himself entirely to Jean. The thrill of the weeks when he had paraded the child in the market places of France while he sold his corn cure again ran through his veins. The two rows of cottages separated by the common, which was the whole of Beverly Stoke, became too small a theatre for his parental pride. He bewailed the loss of his automobile that had perished of senile decay at Aix-en-Provence. If he only had it now he could exhibit Jean to the astonished eyes of St. Albans, Watford—nay London itself!
"I wish I could take him to Dulau & Company," said he.
"Good Heavens!" cried Miss Anne in alarm, for Aristide was capable of everything. "What in the world would you do with him there?"
"What would I do with him?" replied Aristide, picking the child up in his arms—the three were strolling on the common—"Parbleu! I would use him to strike the staff of Dulau & Company green with envy. Do you think the united efforts of the whole lot of them, from the good Mr. Blessington to the office boy, could produce a hero like this? You are a hero, Jean, aren't you?"
"Yes, papa," said Jean.
"He knows it," shouted Aristide with a delighted gesture which nearly cast Jean to the circumambient geese. "Miss Anne, we have the most wonderful child in the universe."
This, as far as Anne was concerned, was a proposition which for the past three years she had regarded as incontrovertible. She smiled at Aristide, who smiled at her, and Jean, seeing them happy, smiled largely at them both.
In a very short time Aristide, who could magically manufacture boats and cocks and pigs and giraffes out of bits of paper, who could bark like a dog and quack like a goose, who could turn himself into a horse or a bear at a minute's notice, whose pockets were a perennial mine of infantile ecstasy, established himself in Jean's mind as a kind of tame, necessary and beloved jinn. Being a loyal little soul, the child retained his affection for Auntie Anne, but he was swept off his little feet by his mirific parent. The time came when, if he was not dressed in his tiny woollen jersey and knee breeches and had not his nose glued against the parlour window in readiness to scramble to the front door for Aristide's morning kiss, he would have thought that chaos had come again. And Anne, humouring the child, hastened to get him washed and dressed in time; until at last, so greatly was she affected by his obsession, she got into the foolish habit of watching the clock and saying to herself: "In another minute he will be here," or: "He is a minute late. What can have happened to him?"
So Aristide, in his childlike way, found remarkable happiness in Beverly Stoke. A very wet summer had been followed by a dry and mellow autumn. Aristide waxed enthusiastic over the English climate and rejoiced in the mild country air. He was also happy under my friend Blessington, who spoke of him to me in glowing terms. At the back of all Aristide's eccentricities was the Provencal peasant's shrewdness. He realized that, for the first time in his life, he had taken up a sound and serious avocation. Also, he was no longer irresponsible. He had found little Jean. Jean's future was in his hands. Jean was to be an architect—God knows why—but Aristide settled it, definitely, off-hand. He would have to be educated. "And, my dear friend," said he, when we were discussing Jean—and for months I heard nothing but Jean, Jean, Jean, so that I loathed the brat, until I met the brown-skinned, black-eyed, merry little wretch and fell, like everybody else, fatuously in love with him—"my dear friend," said he, "an architect, to be the architect that I mean him to be, must have universal knowledge. He must know the first word of the classic, the last word of the modern. He must be steeped in poetry, his brain must vibrate with science. He must be what you call in England a gentleman. He must go to one of your great public schools—Eton, Winchester, Rugby, Harrow—you see I know them all—he must go to Cambridge or Oxford. Ah, I tell you, he is to be a big man. I, Aristide Pujol, did not pick him up on that deserted road, in the Arabia Petrea of Provence, between Salon and Arles, for nothing. He was wrapped, as I have told you, in an old blanket—and ma foi it smelt bad—and I dressed him in my pyjamas and made a Neapolitan cap for him out of one of my socks. The bon Dieu sent him, and I shall arrange just as the bon Dieu intended. Poor Miss Anne Honeywood with her ninety pounds a year, what can she do? Pouf! It is for me to look after the future of little Jean."
By means of such discourse he convinced Miss Anne that Jean was predestined to greatness and that Providence had appointed him, Aristide, as the child's agent in advance. Very much bewildered by his riotous flow of language and very reluctant to sacrifice her woman's pride, she agreed to allow him to contribute towards Jean's upbringing.
"Dear Miss Anne," said he, "it is my right. It is Jean's right. You would love to put him on top of the pinnacle of fame, would you not?"
"Of course," said Miss Anne.
"Eh bien! we will work together. You will give him what can be given by a beautiful and exquisite woman, and I will do all that can be done by the accredited agent of Dulau et Compagnie, Wine Shippers of Bordeaux."
So, I repeat, Aristide was entirely happy. His waking dreams were of the four-year-old child. The glad anticipation of the working day in Great Tower St., E. C., was the evening welcome from the simple but capable gentlewoman and the sense of home and intimacy in her little parlour no bigger than the never-entered and nerve-destroying salon of his parents at Aigues Mortes, but smiling with the grace of old oak and faded chintz. At Aigues Mortes the salon was a comfortless, tasteless convention, set apart for the celebrations of baptisms and marriages and deaths, a pride and a terror to the inhabitants. But here everything seemed to be as much a warm bit of Anne Honeywood as the tortoise-shell comb in her hair and the square of Brussels lace that rose and fell on the bosom of her old evening frock. For, you see, since she expected a visitor in the evenings, Anne had taken to dressing for her sketch of a dinner. For all her struggle with poverty she had retained the charm that four years before had made her touch upon Jean seem a consecration to the impressionable man. And now that he entered more deeply into her life and thoughts, he found himself in fragrant places that were very strange to him. He discovered, too, with some surprise, that a man who has been at fierce grips with Fortune all his life from ten to forty is ever so little tired in spirit and is glad to rest. In the tranquility of Anne Honeywood's presence his soul was singularly at peace. He also wondered why Anne Honeywood seemed to grow younger, and, in her gentle fashion, more laughter-loving, every day.
The Saint Martin's summer lasted to the beginning of December, and then it came to an end, and with it the idyll of Aristide and Anne Honeywood.
One Saturday afternoon, when the rain was falling dismally, she received him with an embarrassment she could scarcely conceal. The usual heightened colour no longer gave youth to her cheek; an anxious frown knitted her candid brows; and there was no laughter in her eyes. He looked at her questioningly. Was anything the matter with Jean? But Jean answered the question for himself by running down the passage and springing like a puppy into Aristide's arms. Anne turned her face away, as if the sight pained her, and, pleading a headache and the desire to lie down, she left the two together. Returning after a couple of hours with the tea-tray, she found them on the floor breathlessly absorbed in the erection of card pagodas. She bit her lip and swallowed a sob. Aristide jumped up and took the tray. Was not the headache better? He was so grieved. Jean must be very quiet and drink up his milk quietly like a hero because Auntie was suffering. Tea was a very subdued affair. Then Anne carried off Jean to bed, refusing Aristide's helpful ministrations. It was his Saturday and Sunday joy to bath Jean amid a score of crawly tin insects which he had provided for the child's ablutionary entertainment, and it formed the climax of Jean's blissful day. But this afternoon Anne tore the twain asunder. Aristide looked mournfully over the rain-swept common through the leaded panes, and speculated on the enigma of woman. A man, feeling ill, would have been only too glad for somebody to do his work; but a woman, just because she was ill, declined assistance. Surely women were an intellect-baffling sex.
She came back, having put Jean to bed.
"My dear friend," she said, with a blurt of bravery, "I have something very hard to say, but I must say it. You must go away from Beverly Stoke."
"Ah!" cried Aristide, "is it I, then, that give you a headache?"
"It's not your fault," she said gently. "You have been everything that a loyal gentleman could be—and it's because you're a loyal gentleman that you must go."
"I don't understand," said he, puzzled. "I must go away because I give you a headache, although it is not my fault."
"It's nothing to do with headaches," she explained. "Don't you see? People around here are talking."
"About you and me?"
"Yes," said Miss Anne, faintly.
"Saprelotte!" cried Aristide, with a fine flourish, "let them talk!"
"Against Jean and myself?"
The reproach brought him to his feet. "No," said he. "No. Sooner than they should talk, I would go out and strangle every one of them. But it is infamous. What do they say?"
"How can I tell you? What would they say in your own country?"
"France is France and England is England."
"And a little cackling village is the same all the world over. No, my dear friend—for you are my dear friend—you must go back to London, for the sake of my good name and Jean's."
"But let us leave the cackling village."
"There are geese on every common," said Anne.
"Nom de Dieu!" muttered Aristide, walking about the tiny parlour. "Nom de Dieu de nom de Dieu!" He stood in front of her and flung out his arms wide. "But without Jean and you life will have no meaning for me. I shall die. I shall fade away. I shall perish. Tell me, dear Miss Anne, what they are saying, the miserable peasants with souls of mud."
But Anne could tell him no more. It had been hateful and degrading to tell him so much. She shivered through all her purity. After a barren discussion she held out her hand, large and generous like herself.
"Good-bye"—she hesitated for the fraction of a second—"Good-bye, Aristide. I promise you shall provide for Jean's future. I will bring him up to London now and then to see you. We will find some way out of the difficulty. But you see, don't you, that you must leave Beverly Stoke?"
Aristide went back to his comfortless lodgings aflame with bewilderment, indignation and despair. He fell upon Mrs. Buttershaw, a slatternly and sour-visaged woman, and hurled at her a tornado of questions. She responded with the glee of a hag, and Aristide learned the amazing fact that in the matter of sheer uncharitableness, unkindness and foulness of thought Beverly Stoke, with its population of three hundred hinds, could have brought down upon it the righteous indignation of Sodom, Gomorrah, Babylon, Paris, and London. For a fortnight or so Anne Honeywood's life in the village had been that of a pariah dog.
"And now you've spoke of it yourself," said Mrs. Buttershaw, her hands on her hips, "I'm glad. I'm a respectable woman, I am, and go to church regularly, and I don't want to be mixed up in such goings on. And I never have held with foreigners, anyway. And the sooner you find other lodgings, the better."
For the first and only time in his life words failed Aristide Pujol. He stood in front of the virtuous harridan, his lips working, his fingers convulsively clutching the air.
"You—you—you—you naughty woman!" he gasped, and, sweeping her away from the doorway of his box of a sitting-room, he rushed up to his tinier bedroom and in furious haste packed his portmanteau.
"I would rather die than sleep another night beneath your slanderous roof," he cried at the foot of the stairs. "Here is more than your week's money." He flung a couple of gold coins on the floor and dashed out into the darkness and the rain.
He hammered at Anne Honeywood's door. She opened it in some alarm.
"You?—but——" she stammered.
"I have come," said he, dumping his portmanteau in the passage, "to take you and Jean away from this abomination of a place. It is a Tophet reserved for those who are not good enough for hell. In hell there is dignity, que diable! Here there is none. I know what you have suffered. I know how they insult you. I know what they say. You cannot stay one more night here. Pack up all your things. Pack up all Jean's things. I have my valise here. I walk to St. Albans and I come back for you in an automobile. You lock up the door. I tell the policeman to guard the cottage. You come with me. We take a train to London. You and Jean will stay at a hotel. I will go to my good friend who saved me from Madam Gougasse. After that we will think."
"That's just like you," she said, smiling in spite of her trouble, "you act first and think afterwards. Unfortunately I'm in the habit of doing the reverse."
"But it's I who am doing all the thinking for you. I have thought till my brain is red hot." He laughed in his luminous and excited way, and, seizing both her hands, kissed them one after the other. "There!" said he, "be ready by the time I return. Do not hesitate. Do not look back. Remember Lot's wife!" He flourished his hat and was gone like a flash into the heavy rain and darkness of the December evening. Anne cried after him, but he too remembering Lot's wife would not turn. He marched on buoyantly, heedless of the wet and the squirting mud from unseen puddles. It was an adventure such as he loved. It was a knightly errand, parbleu! Was he not delivering a beautiful lady from the dragon of calumny? And in an automobile, too! His imagination fondled the idea.
At a garage in St. Albans he readily found a car for hire. He was all for driving it himself—that is how he had pictured the rescue—but the proprietor, dull and unimaginative tradesman, declined firmly. It was a hireling who drove the car to Beverly Stoke. Anne, unhatted and uncloaked, admitted him.
"You are not ready?"
"My dear friend, how can I——?"
"You are not coming?" His hands dropped to his sides and his face was the incarnation of disappointment.
"Let us talk things over reasonably," she urged, opening the parlour door.
"But I have brought the automobile."
"He can wait for five minutes, can't he?"
"He can wait till Doomsday," said Aristide.
"Take off your dripping coat. You must be wet through. Oh, how impulsive you are!"
He took off his overcoat dejectedly and followed her into the parlour, where she tried to point out the impossibility of his scheme. How could she abandon her home at a moment's notice? Failing to convince him, she said at last in some embarrassment, but with gentle dignity: "Suppose we did run away together in your romantic fashion, would it not confirm the scandal in the eyes of this wretched village?"
"You are right," said Aristide. "I had not thought of it."
He knew himself to be a madman. It was not thus that ladies were rescued from calumny. But to leave her alone to face it for time indefinite was unthinkable. And, meanwhile, what would become of him severed from her and little Jean? He sighed and looked around the little room where he had been so happy, and at the sweet-faced woman whose companionship had been so dear to him. And then the true meaning of all the precious things that had been his life for the past two months appeared before him like a smiling valley hitherto hidden and now revealed by dissolving mist. A great gladness gathered round his heart. He leaned across the table by which he was sitting and looked at her and for the first time noticed that her eyes were red.
"You have been crying, dear Anne," said he, using her name boldly. "Why?"
A man ought not to put a question like that at a woman's head and bid her stand and deliver. How is she to answer? Anne felt Aristide's bright eyes upon her and the colour mounted and mounted and deepened on her cheeks and brow.
"I don't like changes," she said in a low voice.
Aristide slipped noiselessly to the side of her chair and knelt on one knee and took her hand.
"Anne—my beloved Anne!" said he.
And Anne neither moved nor protested, but looked away from him into the fire.
* * * * *
And that is all that Aristide told me. There are sacred and beautiful things in life that one man does not tell to another. He did, however, mention that they forgot all about the unfortunate chauffeur sitting in the rain till about three hours afterwards, when Aristide sped away to a St. Albans hotel in joyous solitude.
The very next day he burst in upon me in a state of bliss bordering on mania.
"But there is a tragic side to it," he said when the story was over. "For half the year I shall be exiled to Bordeaux, Marseilles and Algiers as the representative of Dulau et Compagnie."
"The very best thing that could happen for your domestic happiness," said I.
"What? With my heart"—he thumped his heart—"with my heart hurting like the devil all the time?"
"So long as your heart hurts," said I, "you know it isn't dead."
A short while afterwards they were married in London. I was best man and Jean, specklessly attired, was page of honour, and the vicar of her own church at Chislehurst performed the ceremony. The most myopic of creatures could have seen that Anne was foolishly in love with her rascal husband. How could she help it?
As soon as the newly wedded pair had received the exhortation, Aristide, darting to the altar-rail, caught Jean up in his arms, and, to the consternation of the officiating clergy, the verger, and Anne's conventional friends, cried out exultingly:
"Ah, mon petit. It was a lucky day for both of us when I picked you up on the road between Salon and Arles. Put your hands together as you do when you're saying your prayers, mon brave, and say, 'God bless father and mother.'"
Jean obediently adopted the attitude of the infant Samuel in the pictures.
"God bless father and mother," said he, and the childish treble rang out queerly in the large, almost empty church.
There was a span of silence and then all the women-folk fell on little Jean and that was the end of that wedding.
* * * * *
THE GLORY OF CLEMENTINA BY William J. Locke
Author of "The Beloved Vagabond," "Simon the Jester," etc.
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