He was a scholar and a learned historian. His companions were books, and he communed in spirit with writers who were dead and gone.
Had he ever been a different man his circumstances would assuredly have been other. His wife, for instance, would in all human probability have been alive. His avocation might have been more suited to his capabilities. He was not intended for a country parish, and that practical, human comprehension of the ultimate value of little daily details, without which a pastor never yet understood his flock, was not vouchsafed to him.
"Passen takes no account o' churchyard," River Andrew had said, and neither he nor any other in Farlingford could account for the special neglect to which was abandoned that particular corner of the burial ground where the late Mrs. Marvin reposed beneath an early Victorian headstone of singular hideousness.
Mr. Marvin always went round the other way.
"Seems as he has forgotten her wonderful quick," commented the women of Farlingford. But perhaps they were wrong. If he had forgotten, he might be expected to go round by the south side of the church by accident occasionally, especially as it was the shorter way from the rectory to the porch. He was an absent-minded man, but he always remembered, as River Andrew himself admitted, to go north about. And his wife's grave was overgrown by salted grass as were the rest.
Farlingford had accepted him, when his College, having no use for such a dreamer elsewhere, gave him the living, not only with resignation, but with equanimity. This remote parish, cut off from the busier mainland by wide heaths and marshes, sparsely provided with ill-kept roads, had never looked for a bustling activity in its rectors. Their forefathers had been content with a gentleman, given to sport and the pursuits of a country squire, marked on the seventh day by a hearty and robust godliness. They would have preferred Parson Marvin to have handled a boat and carried a gun. But he had his good qualities. He left them alone. And they are the most independent people in the world.
When his wife died, his sister, the widow of an Indian officer, bustled eastward, from a fashionable Welsh watering-place, just to satisfy herself, as she explained to her West-country friends, that he would not marry his cook before six months elapsed. After that period she proposed to wash her hands of him. She was accompanied by her only child, Miriam, who had just left school.
Six months later Septimus Marvin was called upon to give away his sister to a youthful brother officer of her late husband, which ceremony he performed with a sigh of relief audible in the farthest recess of the organ loft. While the wedding-bells were still ringing, the bride, who was not dreamy or vague like her brother, gave Septimus to understand that he had promised to provide Miriam with a home—that he really needed a woman to keep things going at the rectory and to watch over the tender years of little Sep—and that Miriam's boxes were packed.
Septimus had no recollection of the promise. And his sister was quite hurt that he should say such a thing as that on her wedding day and spoil everything. He had no business to make the suggestion if he had not intended to carry it out. So the bride and bridegroom went away in a shower of good wishes and rice to the life of organized idleness, for which the gentleman's education and talents eminently befitted him, and Miriam returned to Farlingford with Septimus.
In those days the railway passed no nearer to Farlingford than Ipswich, and before the arrival of their train at that station Miriam had thoroughly elucidated the situation. She had discovered that she was not expected at the rectory, and that Septimus had never offered of his own free will the home which he now kindly pressed upon her—two truths which the learned historian fondly imagined to be for ever locked up in his own heart, which was a kind one and the heart of a gentleman.
Miriam also learned that Septimus was very poor. She did not need to be informed that he was helpless. Her instinct had told her that long ago. She was only nineteen, but she looked at men and women with those discerning grey eyes, in which there seemed to lurk a quiet light like the light of stars, and saw right through them. She was woman enough—despite the apparent inconsequence of the schoolroom, which still lent a vagueness to her thoughts and movements—to fall an easy victim to the appeal of helplessness. Years, it would appear, are of no account in certain feminine instincts. Miriam had probably been woman enough at ten years of age to fly to the rescue of the helpless.
She did not live permanently at the rectory, but visited her mother from time to time, either in England, or at one of the foreign resorts of idle people. But the visits, as years went by, became shorter and rarer. At twenty-one Miriam came into a small fortune of her own, left by her father in the hands of executors, one of whom was that John Turner, the Paris banker, who had given Dormer Colville a letter of introduction to Septimus Marvin. The money was sorely needed at the rectory, and Miriam drew freely enough on John Turner.
"You are an extravagant girl," said that astute financier to her, when they met at the house of Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence, at Royan, in France. "I wonder what you spend it on! But I don't trouble my head about it. You need not explain, you understand. But you can come to me when you want advice or help. You will find me—in the background. I am a fat old man, in the background. Useful enough in my way, perhaps, even to a pretty girl with a sound judgment."
There were many, who, like Loo Barebone, reflected that there were other worlds open to Miriam Liston. At first she went into those other worlds, under the flighty wing of her mother, and looked about her there. Captain and Mrs. Duncan belonged to the Anglo-French society, which had sprung into existence since the downfall of Napoleon I, and was in some degree the outcome of the part played by Great Britain in the comedy of the Bourbon and Orleanist collapse. Captain Duncan had retired from the army, changing his career from one of a chartered to an unchartered uselessness, and he herded with tarnished aristocracy and half-pay failures in the smoking-rooms of Continental clubs.
Miriam returned, after a short experience of this world, to Farlingford, as to the better part. At first she accepted invitations to some of the country houses open to her by her connection with certain great families. But after a time she seemed to fall under the spell of that quiet life which is still understood and lived in a few remote places.
"What can you find to do all day and to think about all night at that bleak corner of England?" inquired her friends, themselves restless by day and sleepless by night by reason of the heat of their pursuit of that which is called pleasure.
"If he wants to marry his cook let him do it and be done with us," wrote her mother from the south of France. "Come and join us at Biarritz. The Prince President will be here this winter. We shall be very gay.... P.S. We shall not ask you to stay with us as we are hard up this quarter; but to share expenses. Mind come."
But Miriam remained at Farlingford, and there is nothing to be gained by seeking to define her motive. There are two arguments against seeking a woman's motive. Firstly, she probably has none. Secondly, should she have one she will certainly have a counterfeit, which she will dangle before your eyes, and you will seize it.
Dormer Colville might almost be considered to belong to the world of which Captain and Mrs. Duncan were such brilliant ornaments. But he did not so consider himself. For their world was essentially British, savoured here and there by a French count or so, at whose person and title the French aristocracy of undoubted genuineness looked askance. Dormer Colville counted his friends among these latter. In fact, he moved in those royalist circles who thought that there was little to choose between the Napoleonic and the Orleanist regime. He carefully avoided intimacy with Englishmen whose residence in foreign parts was continuous and in constant need of explanation. Indeed, if a man's life needs explanation, he must sooner or later find himself face to face with some one who will not listen to him.
Colville, however, knew all about Captain Duncan, and knew what was ignored by many, namely, that he was nothing worse than foolish. He knew all about Miriam, for he was in the confidence of Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence. He knew that that lady wondered why Miriam preferred Farlingford to the high-bred society of her own circle at Royan and in Paris.
He thought he knew why Loo Barebone showed so little enterprise. And he was, as Madame de Chantonnay had frequently told him, more than half a Frenchman in the quickness of his intuitions. He picked a flower for his buttonhole from the garden of the "Black Sailor," and set forth the morning after his interview with Captain Clubbe toward the rectory. It was a cool July morning, with the sun half obscured by a fog-bank driven in from the sea. Through the dazzling white of that which is known on these coasts as the water-smoke the sky shone a cloudless blue. The air was light and thin. It is the lightest and thinnest air in England. Dormer Colville hummed a song under his breath as he walked on the top of the dyke. He was a light-hearted man, full of hope and optimism.
"Am I disturbing your studies?" he asked, with his easy laugh, as he came rather suddenly on Miriam and little Sep in the turf-shelter at the corner of the rectory garden. "You must say so if I am."
They had, indeed, their books, and the boy's face wore that abstracted look which comes from a very earnest desire not to see the many interesting things on earth and sea, which always force themselves upon the attention of the young at the wrong time. Colville had already secured Sep's friendship by the display of a frank ignorance of natural history only equalled by his desire to be taught.
"We're doing history," replied Sep, frankly, jumping up and shaking hands.
"Ah, yes. William the Conqueror, ten hundred and sixty-six, and all the rest of it. I know. At least I knew once, but I have forgotten."
"No. We're doing French history. Miriam likes that best, but I hate it."
"French history," said Colville, thoughtfully. "Yes. That is interesting. Miss Liston likes that best, does she? Or, perhaps, she thinks that it is best for you to know it. Do you know all about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette?"
"Pretty well," admitted Sep, doubtfully.
"When I was a little chap like you, I knew many people who had seen Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. That was long, long ago," he added, turning to Miriam to make the admission. "But those are not the things that one forgets, are they, Miss Liston?"
"Then I wish Sep could know somebody who would make him remember," answered Miriam, half closing the book in her hand; for she was very quick and had seen Colville's affable glance take it in in passing, as it took in everything within sight.
"A King, for instance," he said, slowly. "A King of France. Others—prophets and righteous men—have desired to see that, Miss Liston."
It seemed, however, that he had seen enough to know the period which they were studying.
"I suppose," he said, after a pause, "that in this studious house you talk and think history, and more especially French history. It must be very quiet and peaceful. Much more restful than acting in it as my friend de Gemosac has done all his life, as I myself have done in a small way. For France takes her history so much more violently than you do in England. France is tossed about by it, while England stands and is hammered on the anvil of Time, as it were, and remains just the same shape as before."
He broke off and turned to Sep.
"Do you know the story of the little boy who was a King?" he asked, abruptly. "They put him in prison and he escaped. He was carried out in a clothes-basket. Funny, is it not? And he escaped from his enemies and reached another country, where he became a sailor. He grew to be a man and he married a woman of that country, and she died, leaving him with a little boy. And then he died himself and left the little boy, who was taken care of by his English relations, who never knew that he was a King. But he was; for his father was a King before him, and his grandfathers—far, far back. Back to the beginning of the book that Miss Liston holds in her hand. The little boy—he was an orphan, you see—became a sailor. He never knew that he was a King—the Hope of his country, of all the old men and the wise men in it—the holder of the fate of nations. Think of that."
The story pleased Sep, who sat with open lips and eager eyes, listening to it.
"Do you think it is an interesting story? What do you think is the end of it?"
"I don't know," answered Sep, gravely.
"Neither do I. No one knows the end of that story—yet. But if you were a King—if you were that boy—what would you do? Would you go and be a King, or would you be afraid?"
"No. I should go and be a King. And fight battles."
"But you would have to leave everybody. You would have to leave your father."
"I should not mind that," answered Sep, brutally.
"You would leave Miss Liston?"
"I should have to," was the reply, with conviction.
"Ah, yes," said Colville, with a grave nod of the head. "Yes. I suppose you would have to if you were anything of a man at all. There would be no alternative—for a real man."
"Besides," put in Sep, jumping from side to side on his seat with eagerness, "she would make me—wouldn't you, Miriam?"
Colville had turned away and was looking northward toward the creek, known as Maiden's Grave, running through the marshes to the river. A large lug-sail broke the flat line of the horizon, though the boat to which it belonged was hidden by the raised dyke.
"Would she?" inquired Colville, absent-mindedly, without taking his eyes from the sail which was creeping slowly toward them. "Well—you know Miss Liston's character better than I do, Sep. And no doubt you are right. And you are not that little boy, so it doesn't matter; does it?"
After a pause he turned and glanced sideways at Miriam, who was looking straight in front of her with steady eyes and white cheeks.
They could hear Loo Barebone singing gaily in the boat, which was hidden below the level of the dyke. And they watched, in a sudden silence, the sail pass down the river toward the quay.
The tide was ebbing still when Barebone loosed his boat, one night, from the grimy steps leading from the garden of Maiden's Grave farm down to the creek. It was at the farm-house that Captain Clubbe now lived when on shore. He had lived there since the death of his brother, two years earlier—that grim Clubbe of Maiden's Grave, whose methods of life and agriculture are still quoted on market days from Colchester to Beccles.
The evenings were shorter now, for July was drawing to a close, and the summer is brief on these coasts. The moon was not up yet, but would soon rise. Barebone hoisted the great lug-sail, that smelt of seaweed and tannin. There was a sleepy breeze blowing in from the cooler sea, to take the place of that hot and shimmering air which had been rising all day from the corn-fields. He was quicker in his movements than those who usually handled these stiff ropes and held the clumsy tiller. Quick—and quiet for once. He had been three nights to the rectory, only to find the rector there, vaguely kind, looking at him with a watery eye, through the spectacles which were rarely straight upon his nose, with an unasked question on his hesitating lips.
For Septimus Marvin knew that Colville, in the name of the Marquis de Gemosac, had asked Loo Barebone to go to France and institute proceedings there to recover a great heritage, which it seemed must be his. And Barebone had laughed and put off his reply from day to day for three days.
Few knew of it in Farlingford, though many must have suspected the true explanation of the prolonged stay of the two strangers at the "Black Sailor." Captain Clubbe and Septimus Marvin, Dormer Colville and Monsieur de Gemosac shared this knowledge, and awaited, impatiently enough, an answer which could assuredly be only in the affirmative. Clubbe was busy enough throughout the day at the old slip-way, where "The Last Hope" was under repair—the last ship, it appeared likely, that the rotten timbers could support or the old, old shipwrights mend.
Loo Barebone was no less regular in his attendance at the river-side, and worked all day, on deck or in the rigging, at leisurely sail-making or neat seizing of a worn rope. He was gay, and therefore incomprehensible to a slow-thinking, grave-faced race.
"What do I want with a heritage?" he asked, carelessly. "I am mate of 'The Last Hope'—and that is all. Give me time. I have not made up my mind yet, but I think it will be No."
And oddly enough, it was Colville who preached patience to his companions in suspense.
"Give him time," he said. "There can only be one answer to such a proposal. But he is young. It is not when we are young that we see the world as it really is, but live in a land of dreams. Give him time."
The Marquis de Gemosac was impatient, however, and was for telling Barebone more than had been disclosed to him.
"There is no knowing," he cried, "what that canaille is doing in France."
"There is no knowing," admitted Colville, with his air of suppressing a half-developed yawn, "but I think we know, all the same—you and I, Marquis. And there is no hurry."
After three days Loo Barebone had still given no answer. As he hoisted the sail and felt for the tiller in the dark, he was, perhaps, meditating on this momentous reply, or perhaps he had made up his mind long before, and would hold to the decision even to his own undoing, as men do who are impulsive and not strong. The water lapped and gurgled round the bows, for the wind was almost ahead, and it was only by nursing the heavy boat that he saved the necessity of making a tack across the narrow creek. In the morning he had, as usual, run down into the river and to the slip-way, little suspecting that Miriam and Sep were just above him behind the dyke, where they had sat three days before listening to Dormer Colville's story of the little boy who was a King. To-night he ran the boat into the coarse and wiry grass where Septimus Marvin's own dinghy lay, half hidden by the reeds, and he stumbled ashore clutching at the dewy grass as he climbed the side of the dyke.
He went toward the turf-shelter half despondently, and then stopped short a few yards away from it. For Miriam was there. He thought she was alone, and paused to make sure before he spoke. She was sitting at the far corner, sheltered from the north wind. For Farlingford is like a ship—always conscious of the lee- and the weather-side, and all who live there are half sailors in their habits—subservient to the wind.
"At last," said Loo, with a little vexed laugh. He could see her face turned toward him, but her eyes were only dark shadows beneath her hair. Her face looked white in the darkness. Her answering laugh had a soothing note in it.
"Why—at last?" she asked. Her voice was frank and quietly assured in its friendliness. They were old comrades, it seemed, and had never been anything else. The best friendship is that which has never known a quarrel, although poets and others may sing the tenderness of a reconciliation. The friendship that has a quarrel and a reconciliation in it is like a man with a weak place left in his constitution by a past sickness. He may die of something else in the end, but the probability is that he must reckon at last with that healed sore. The friendship may perish from some other cause—a marriage, or success in life, one of the two great severers—but that salved quarrel is more than likely to recur and kill at last.
These two had never fallen out. And it was the woman who, contrary to custom, fended the quarrel now.
"Oh! because I have been here three nights in succession, I suppose, and did not find you here. I was disappointed."
"But you found Uncle Septimus in his study. I could hear you talking there until quite late."
"Of course I was very glad to see him and talk with him. For it is to him that I owe a certain half-developed impatience with the uneducated—with whom I deal all my life, except for a few hours now and then in the study and here in the turf-shelter with you. I can see—even in the dark—that you look grave. Do not do that. It is not worth that."
He broke off with his easy laugh, as if to banish any suggestion of gravity coming from himself.
"It is not worth looking grave about. And I am sorry if I was rude a minute ago. I had no right, of course, to assume that you would be here. I suppose it was impertinent—was that it?"
"I will not quarrel," she answered, soothingly—"if that is what you want."
Her voice was oddly placid. It almost seemed to suggest that she had come to-night for a certain purpose; that one subject of conversation alone would interest her, and that to all others she must turn a deaf ear.
He came a little nearer, and, leaning against the turf wall, looked down at her. He was suddenly grave now. The roles were again reversed; for it was the woman who was tenacious to one purpose and the man who seemed inconsequent, flitting from grave to gay, from one thought to another. His apology had been made graciously enough, but with a queer pride, quite devoid of the sullenness which marks the pride of the humbly situated.
"No; I do not want that," he answered. "I want a little sympathy, that is all; because I have been educated above my station. And I looked for it from those who are responsible for that which is nearly always a catastrophe. And it is your uncle who educated me. He is responsible in the first instance, and, of course, I am grateful to him."
"He could never have educated you," put in Miriam, "if you had not been ready for the education."
Barebone put aside the point. He must, at all events, have learnt humility from Septimus Marvin—a quality not natural to his temperament.
"And you are responsible, as well," he went on, "because you have taught me a use for the education."
"Indeed!" she said, gently and interrogatively, as if at last he had reached the point to which she wished to bring him.
"Yes; the best use to which I could ever put it. To talk to you on an equality."
He looked hard at her through the darkness, which was less intense now; for the moon was not far below the horizon. Her face looked white, and he thought that she was breathing quickly. But they had always been friends; he remembered that just in time.
"It is only natural that I should look forward, when we are at sea, to coming back here—" He paused and kicked the turf-wall with his heel, as if to remind her that she had sat in the same corner before and he had leant against the same wall, talking to her. "They are good fellows, of course, with a hundred fine qualities which I lack, but they do not understand half that one may say, or think—even the Captain. He is well educated, in his way, but it is only the way of a coasting-captain who has risen by his merits to the command of a foreign-going ship."
Miriam gave an impatient little sigh. He had veered again from the point.
"You think that I forget that he is my relative," said Loo, sharply, detecting in his quickness of thought a passing resentment. "I do not. I never forget that. I am the son of his cousin. I know that, and thus related to many in Farlingford. But I have never called him cousin, and he has never asked me to."
"No," said Miriam, with averted eyes, in that other voice, which made him turn and look at her, catching his breath.
"Oh!" he said, with a sudden laugh of comprehension. "You have heard what, I suppose, is common talk in Farlingford. You know what has brought these people here—this Monsieur de Gemosac, and the other—what is his name? Dormer Colville. You have heard of my magnificent possibilities. And I—I had forgotten all about them."
He threw out his arms in a gesture of gay contempt; for even in the dark he could not refrain from adding to the meaning of mere words a hundred-fold by the help of his lean hands and mobile face.
"I have heard of it, of course," she admitted, "from several people. But I have heard most from Captain Clubbe. He takes it more seriously than you do. You do not know, because he is one of those men who are most silent with those to whom they are most attached. He thinks that it is providential that my uncle should have had the desire to educate you, and that you should have displayed such capacity to learn."
"Capacity?" he protested—"say genius! Do not let us do things by halves. Genius to learn—yes; go on."
"Ah! you may laugh," Miriam said, lightly, "but it is serious enough. You will find circumstances too strong for you. You will have to go to France to claim your—heritage."
"Not I, if it means leaving Farlingford for ever and going to live among strange people, like the Marquis de Gemosac, for instance, who gives me the impression of a thousand petty ceremonies and a million futile memories."
He turned and lifted his face to the breeze which blew from the sea over flat stretches of sand and seaweed—the crispest, most invigorating air in the world except that which blows on the Baltic shores.
"I prefer Farlingford. I am half a Clubbe—and the other half!—Heaven knows what that is! The offshoot of some forgotten seedling blown away from France by a great storm. If my father knew, he never said anything. And if he knew, and said nothing, one may be sure that it was because he was ashamed of what he knew. You never saw him, or you would have known his dread of France, or anything that was French. He was a man living in a dream. His body was here in Farlingford, but his mind was elsewhere—who knows where? And at times I feel that, too—that unreality—as if I were here, and somewhere else at the same time. But all the same, I prefer Farlingford, even if it is a dream."
The moon had risen at last; a waning half-moon, lying low and yellow in the sky, just above the horizon, casting a feeble light on earth. Loo turned and looked at Miriam, who had always met his glance with her thoughtful, steady eyes. But now she turned away.
"Farlingford is best, at all events," he said, with an odd conviction. "I am only the grandson of old Seth Clubbe, of Maiden's Grave. I am a Farlingford sailor, and that is all. I am mate of 'The Last Hope'—at your service."
"You are more than that."
He made a step nearer to her, looking down at her white face, averted from him. For her voice had been uncertain—unsteady—as if she were speaking against her will.
"Even if I am only that," he said, suddenly grave, "Farlingford may still be a dream—Farlingford and—you."
"What do you mean?" she asked, in a quick, mechanical voice, as if she had reached a desired crisis at last and was prepared to act.
"Oh, I only mean what I have meant always," he answered. "But I have been afraid—afraid. One hears, sometimes, of a woman who is generous enough to love a man who is a nobody—to think only of love. Sometimes—last voyage, when you used to sit where you are sitting now—I have thought that it might have been my extraordinary good fortune to meet such a woman."
He waited for some word or sign, but she sat motionless.
"You understand," he went on, "how contemptible must seem their talk of a heritage in France, when such a thought is in one's mind, even if—"
"Yes," she interrupted, hastily. "You were quite wrong. You were mistaken."
"Mistaking in thinking you—"
"Yes," she interrupted again. "You are quite mistaken, and I am very sorry, of course, that it should have happened."
She was singularly collected, and spoke in a matter-of-fact voice. Barebone's eyes gleamed suddenly; for she had aroused-perhaps purposely—a pride which must have accumulated in his blood through countless generations. She struck with no uncertain hand.
"Yes," he said, slowly; "it is to be regretted. Is it because I am the son of a nameless father and only the mate of 'The Last Hope'?"
"If you were before the mast—" she answered—"if you were a King, it would make no difference. It is simply because I do not care for you in that way."
"You do not care for me—in that way," he echoed, with a laugh, which made her move as if she were shrinking. "Well, there is nothing more to be said to that."
He looked at her slowly, and then took off his cap as if to bid her good-bye. But he forgot to replace it, and he went away with the cap in his hand. She heard the clink of a chain as he loosed his boat.
IN THE ITALIAN HOUSE
The Abbe Touvent was not a courageous man, and the perspiration, induced by the climb from the high-road up that which had once been the ramp to the Chateau of Gemosac, ran cold when he had turned the key in the rusty lock of the great gate. It was not a dark night, for the moon sailed serenely behind fleecy clouds, but the shadows cast by her silvery light might harbour any terror.
It is easy enough to be philosophic at home in a chair beside the lamp. Under those circumstances, the Abbe had reflected that no one would rob him, because he possessed nothing worth stealing. But now, out here in the dark, he recalled a hundred instances of wanton murder duly recorded in the newspaper which he shared with three parishioners in Gemosac.
He paused to wipe his brow with a blue cotton handkerchief before pushing open the gate, and, being alone, was not too proud to peep through the keyhole before laying his shoulder against the solid and weather-beaten oak. He glanced nervously at the loopholes in the flanking towers and upward at the machicolated battlement overhanging him, as if any crumbling peep-hole might harbour gleaming eyes. He hurried through the passage beneath the vaulted roof without daring to glance to either side, where doorways and steps to the towers were rendered more fearsome by heavy curtains of ivy.
The enceinte of the castle of Gemosac is three-sided, with four towers jutting out at the corners, from which to throw a flanking fire upon any who should raise a ladder against the great curtains, built of that smooth, white stone which is quarried at Brantome and on the banks of the Dordogne. The fourth side of the enceinte stands on a solid rock, above the little river that loses itself in the flatlands bordering the Gironde, so that it can scarce be called a tributary of that wide water. A moss-grown path round the walls will give a quick walker ten minutes' exercise to make the round from one tower of the gateway to the other.
Within the enciente are the remains of the old castle, still solid and upright; erected, it is recorded, by the English during their long occupation of this country. A more modern chateau, built after the final expulsion of the invader, adjoins the ancient structure, and in the centre of the vast enclosure, raised above the walls, stands a square house, in the Italian style, built in the time of Marie de Medici, and never yet completed. There are, also, gardens and shaded walks and vast stables, a chapel, two crypts, and many crumbling remains inside the walls, that offered a passive resistance to the foe in olden time, and as successfully hold their own to-day against the prying eye of a democratic curiosity.
Above the stables, quite close to the gate, half a dozen rooms were in the occupation of the Marquis de Gemosac; but it was not to these that the Abbe Touvent directed his tremulous steps.
Instead, he went toward the square, isolated house, standing in the middle of that which had once been the great court, and was now half garden, half hayfield. The hay had been cut, and the scent of the new stack, standing against the walls of the oldest chateau and under its leaking roof, came warm and aromatic to mix with the breath of the evening primrose and rosemary clustering in disorder on the ill-defined borders. The grim walls, that had defended the Gemosacs against franker enemies in other days, served now to hide from the eyes of the villagers the fact—which must, however, have been known to them—that the Marquis de Gemosac, in gloves, kept this garden himself, and had made the hay with no other help than that of his old coachman and Marie, that capable, brown-faced bonne-a-tout-faire, who is assuredly the best man in France to-day.
In this clear, southern atmosphere the moon has twice the strength of that to which we are accustomed in mistier lands, and the Abbe looked about him with more confidence as he crossed the great court. There were frogs in a rainwater tank constructed many years ago, when some enterprising foe had been known to cut off the water-supply of a besieged chateau, and their friendly croak brought a sense of company and comfort to the Abbe's timid soul.
The door of the Italian house stood open, for the interior had never been completed, and only one apartment, a lofty banqueting-hall, had ever been furnished. Within the doorway, the Abbe fumbled in the pocket of his soutane and rattled a box of matches. He carried a parcel in his hand, which he now unfolded, and laid out on the lid of a mouldy chest half a dozen candles. When he struck a match a flight of bats whirred out of the doorway, and the Abbe's breath whistled through his teeth.
He lighted two candles, and carrying them, alight, in one hand—not without dexterity, for candles played an important part in his life—he went forward. The flickering light showed his face to be a fat one, kind enough, gleaming now with perspiration and fear, but shiny at other times with that Christian tolerance which makes men kind to their own failings. It was very dark within the house, for all the shutters were closed.
The Abbe lighted a third candle and fixed it, with a drop of its own wax, on the high mantel of the great banqueting-hall. There were four or five candlesticks on side-tables, and a candelabra stood in the centre of a long table, running the length of the room. In a few minutes the Abbe had illuminated the apartment, which smelt of dust and the days of a dead monarchy. Above his head, the bats were describing complicated figures against a ceiling which had once been painted in the Italian style, to represent a trellis roof, with roses and vines entwined. Half a dozen portraits of men, in armour and wigs, looked down from the walls. One or two of them were rotting from their frames, and dangled a despondent corner out into the room.
There were chairs round the table, set as if for a phantom banquet amid these mouldering environments, and their high carved backs threw fantastic shadows on the wall.
While the Abbe was still employed with the candles, he heard a heavy step and loud breathing in the hall without, where he had carefully left a light.
"Why did you not wait for me on the hill, malhonnete?" asked a thick voice, like the voice of a man, but the manner was the manner of a woman. "I am sure you must have heard me. One hears me like a locomotive, now that I have lost my slimness."
She came into the room as she spoke, unwinding a number of black, knitted shawls, in which she was enveloped. There were so many of them, and of such different shape and texture, that some confusion ensued. The Abbe ran to her assistance.
"But, Madame," he cried, "how can you suspect me of such a crime? I came early to make these preparations. And as for hearing you—would to Heaven I had! For it needs courage to be a Royalist in these days—especially in the dark, by one's self."
He seemed to know the shawls, for he disentangled them with skill and laid them aside, one by one.
The Comtesse de Chantonnay breathed a little more freely, but no friendly hand could disencumber her of the mountains of flesh, which must have weighed down any heart less buoyant and courageous.
"Ah, bah!" she cried, gaily. "Who is afraid? What could they do to an old woman? Ah! you hold up your hands. That is kind of you. But I am no longer young, and there is my Albert—with those stupid whiskers. It is unfilial to wear whiskers, and I have told him so. And you—who could harm you—a priest? Besides, no one could be a priest, and not a Royalist, Abbe!"
"I know it, Madame, and that is why I am one. Have we been seen, Madame la Comtesse? The village was quiet, as you came through?"
"Quiet as my poor husband in his grave. Tell me? Abbe, now, honestly, am I thinner? I have deprived myself of coffee these two days."
The Abbe walked gravely round her. It was quite an excursion.
"Who would have you different, Madame, to what you are?" he temporized. "To be thin is so ungenerous. And Albert—where is he? You have not surely come alone?"
"Heaven forbid!—and I a widow!" replied Madame de Chantonnay, arranging, with a stout hand, the priceless lace on her dress. "Albert is coming. We brought a lantern, although it is a moon. It is better. Besides, it is always done by those who conspire. And Albert had his great cloak, and he fell up a step in the courtyard and dropped the lantern, and lost it in the long grass. I left him looking for it, in the dark. He was not afraid, my brave Albert!"
"He has the dauntless heart of his mother," murmured the Abbe, gracefully, as he ran round the table setting the chairs in order. He had already offered the largest and strongest to the Comtesse, and it was creaking under her now, as she moved to set her dress in order.
"Assuredly," she admitted, complacently. "Has not France produced a Jeanne d'Arc and a Duchesse de Berri? It was not from his father, at all events, that he inherited his courage. For he was a poltroon, that man. Yes, my dear Abbe, let us be honest, and look at life as it is. He was a poltroon, and I thought I loved him—for two or three days only, however. And I was a child then. I was beautiful."
"Was?" echoed the Abbe, reproachfully.
"Silence, wicked one! And you a priest."
"Even an ecclesiastic, Madame, may have eyes," he said, darkly, as he snuffed a candle and, subsequently, gave himself a mechanical thump on the chest, in the region of the heart.
"Then they should wear blinkers, like a horse," said Madame, severely, as if wearied by an admiration so universal that it palled.
At this moment, Albert de Chantonnay entered the room. He was enveloped in a long black cloak, which he threw off his shoulders and cast over the back of a chair, not without an obvious appreciation of its possibilities of the picturesque. He looked round the room with a mild eye, which refused to lend itself to mystery or a martial ruthlessness.
He was a young man with a very thin neck, and the whiskers, of which his mother made complaint, were scarcely visible by the light of the Abbe's candles.
"Good!" he said, in a thin tenor voice. "We are in time."
He came forward to the table, with long, nervous strides. He was not exactly impressive, but his manner gave the assurance of a distinct earnestness of purpose. The majority of us are unfortunately situated toward the world, as regards personal appearance. Many could pass for great if their physical proportions were less mean. There are thousands of worthy and virtuous young men who never receive their due in social life because they have red hair or stand four-feet-six high, or happen to be the victim of an inefficient dentist. The world, it would seem, does not want virtue or solid worth. It prefers appearance to either. Albert de Chantonnay would, for instance, have carried twice the weight in Royalist councils if his neck had been thicker.
He nodded to the Abbe.
"I received your message," he said, in the curt manner of the man whose life is in his hand, or is understood, in French theatrical circles, to be thus uncomfortably situated. "The letter?"
"It is here, Monsieur Albert," replied the Abbe, who was commonplace, and could not see himself as he wished others to see him. There was only one Abbe Touvent, for morning or afternoon, for church or fete, for the chateau or the cottage. There were a dozen Albert de Chantonnays, fierce or tender, gay or sad, a poet or a soldier—a light persifleur, who had passed through the mill, and had emerged hard and shining, or a young man of soul, capable of high ideals. To-night, he was the politician—the conspirator—quick of eye, curt of speech.
He held out his hand for the letter.
"You are to read it, as Monsieur le Marquis instructs me, Monsieur Albert," hazarded the Abbe, touching the breast pocket of his soutane, where Monsieur de Gemosac's letter lay hidden, "to those assembled."
"But, surely, I am to read it to myself first," was the retort; "or else how can I give it proper value?"
There may be some who refuse to take seriously a person like Albert de Chantonnay because, forsooth, he happened to possess a sense of the picturesque. There are, as a matter of fact, thousands of sensible persons in the British Isles who fail completely to understand the average Frenchman. To the English comprehension it is, for instance, surprising that in time of stress—when Paris was besieged by a German army—a hundred franc-tireur corps should spring into existence, who gravely decked themselves in sombreros and red waist-cloths, and called themselves the "Companions of Death," or some claptrap title of a similar sound. Nevertheless, these "Companions of Death" fought at Orleans as few have fought since man walked this earth, and died as bravely as any in a government uniform. Even the stolid German foe forgot, at last, to laugh at the sombrero worn in midwinter.
It is useless to dub a Frenchman unreal and theatrical when he gaily carries his unreality and his perception of the dramatic to the lucarne of the guillotine and meets imperturbably the most real thing on earth, Death.
Albert de Chantonnay was a good Royalist—a better Royalist, as many were in France at this time, than the King—and, perhaps, he carried his loyalty to the point that is reached by the best form of flattery.
Let it be remembered that when, on the 3rd of May, 1814, Louis XVIII was reinstated, not by his own influence or exertions, but by the allied sovereigns who had overthrown Napoleon, he began at once to issue declarations and decrees as of the nineteenth year of his reign, ignoring the Revolution and Napoleon. Did this Bourbon really take himself seriously? Did he really expect the world to overlook Napoleon, or did he know as all the world knows to-day, that long after the Bourbons have sunk into oblivion the name of Napoleon will continue to be a household word?
If a situation is thus envisaged by a King, what may the wise expect from a Royalist?
In the absence of the Marquis de Gemosac, Albert de Chantonnay was considered to be the leader of the party in that quiet corner of south-western France which lies north of Bordeaux and south of that great dividing river, the Loire. He was, moreover, looked upon as representing that younger blood of France, to which must be confided the hopes and endeavours of the men, now passing away one by one, who had fought and suffered for their kings.
It was confidently whispered throughout this pastoral country that August Persons, living in exile in England and elsewhere, were in familiar and confidential correspondence with the Marquis de Gemosac, and, in a minor degree, with Albert de Chantonnay. For kings, and especially deposed kings, may not be choosers, but must take the instrument that comes to hand. A constitutional monarch is, by the way, better placed in this respect, for it is his people who push the instrument into his grasp, and in the long run the people nearly always read a man aright despite the efforts of a cheap press to lead them astray.
"If it were not written in the Marquis's own writing I could not have believed it," said Albert de Chantonnay, speaking aloud his own thoughts. He turned the letter this way and that, examining first the back of it and then the front.
"It has not been through the post." he said to the Abbe, who stood respectfully watching his face, which, indeed, inspired little confidence, for the chin receded in the wrong way—not like the chin of a shark, which indicates, not foolishness, but greed of gain—and the eyes were large and pale like those of a sheep.
"Oh, Heaven forbid!" cried the Abbe. "Such a letter as that! Where should we all be if it were read by the government? And all know that letters passing through the post to the address of such as Monsieur Albert are read in passing—by the Prince President himself, as likely as not."
Albert gave a short, derisive laugh, and shrugged his shoulders, which made his admiring mother throw back her head with a gesture, inviting the Abbe to contemplate, with satisfaction, the mother of so brave a man.
"Voila," she said, "but tell us, my son, what is in the letter?"
"Not yet," was the reply. "It is to be read to all when they are assembled. In the mean time—"
He did not finish the sentence in words, but by gesture conveyed that the missive, now folded and placed in his breast-pocket, was only to be obtained bespattered with his life's blood. And the Abbe wiped his clammy brow with some satisfaction that it should be thus removed from his own timorous custody.
Albert de Chantonnay was looking expectantly at the door, for he had heard footsteps, and now he bowed gravely to a very old gentleman, a notary of the town, who entered the room with a deep obeisance to the Comtesse. Close on the notary's heels came others. Some were in riding costume, and came from a distance.
One sprightly lady wore evening dress, only partially concealed by a cloak. She hurried in with a nod for Albert de Chantonnay, and a kiss for the Comtesse. Her presence had the immediate effect of imparting an air of practical common-sense energy to the assembly, which it had hitherto lacked. There was nothing of the old regime in this lady, who seemed to over-ride etiquette, and cheerfully ignore the dramatic side of the proceedings.
"Is it not wonderful?" she whispered aloud, after the manner of any modern lady at one of those public meetings in which they take so large a part with so small a result in these later days. "Is it not wonderful?" And her French, though pure enough, was full and round—the French of an English tongue. "I have had a long letter from Dormer telling me all about it. Oh—" And she broke off, silenced by the dark frown of Albert de Chantonnay, to which her attention had been forcibly directed by his mother. "I have been dining with Madame de Rathe," she went on, irrepressibly, changing the subject in obedience to Albert de Chantonnay's frown. "The Vicomtesse bids me make her excuses. She feared an indigestion, so will be absent to-night."
"Ah!" returned the Comtesse de Chantonnay. "It is not that. I happen to know that the Vicomtesse de Rathe has the digestion of a schoolboy. It is because she has no confidence in Albert. But we shall see—we shall see. It is not for the nobility of Louis Philippe to—to have a poor digestion."
And the Comtesse de Chantonnay made a gesture and a meaning grimace which would have been alarming enough had her hand and face been less dimpled with good nature.
There were now assembled about a dozen persons, and the Abbe was kept in countenance by two others of his cloth. There were several ladies; one of whom was young and plain and seemed to watch Albert de Chantonnay with a timid awe. Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence, seated next to the Comtesse de Chantonnay, was the only lady who made any attempt at gay apparel, and thus stood rather conspicuous among her companions clad in sober and somewhat rusty black. All over the west of France such meetings of the penniless Royalists were being held at this time, not, it has been averred, without the knowledge of the Prince President, who has been credited with the courage to treat the matter with contempt. About no monarch, living or dead, however, have so many lies been written, by friend or foe, with good or ill intent, as about him, who subsequently carried out the astounding feat of climbing to the throne of France as Napoleon III. And it seems certain that he has been given credit for knowing much of which he must have been ignorant to an extent hardly credible, even now, in face of subsequent events.
The Comtesse de Chantonnay was still tossing her head, at intervals, at the recollection of the Vicomtesse de Rathe's indigestion. This was only typical of the feelings that divided every camp in France at this time—at any time, indeed, since the days of Charlemagne—for the French must always quarrel among themselves until they are actually on the brink of national catastrophe. And even when they are fallen into that pit they will quarrel at the bottom, and bespatter each other with the mud that is there.
"Are we all here?" asked Albert de Chantonnay, standing in an effective attitude at the end of the table, with his hand on the back of his chair. He counted the number of his fellow-conspirators, and then sat down, drawing forward a candelabra.
"You have been summoned in haste," he said, "by the request of the Marquis de Gemosac to listen to the perusal of a letter of importance. It may be of the utmost importance—to us—to France—to all the world."
He drew the letter from his pocket and opened it amid a breathless silence. His listeners noted the care with which he attended to gesture and demeanour, and accounted it to him for righteousness; for they were French. An English audience would have thought him insincere, and they would have been wrong.
"The letter is dated from a place called Farlingford, in England. I have never heard of it. It is nowhere near to Twickenham or Clarement, nor is it in Buckinghamshire. The rest of England—no one knows." Albert paused and held up one hand for silence.
"At last," he read—"at last, my friends, after a lifetime of fruitless search, it seems that I have found—through the good offices of Dormer Colville—not the man we have sought, but his son. We have long suspected that Louis XVII must be dead. Madame herself, in her exile at Frohsdorff, has admitted to her intimates that she no longer hoped. But here in the full vigour of youth—a sailor, strong and healthy, living a simple life on shore as at sea—I have found a man whose face, whose form, and manner would clearly show to the most incredulous that he could be no other than the son of Louis XVII. A hundred tricks of manner and gesture he has inherited from the father he scarce remembers, from the grandfather who perished on the guillotine many years before he himself was born. No small proof of the man's sincerity is the fact that only now, after long persuasion, has he consented to place himself in our hands. I thought of hurrying at once to Frohsdorff to present to the aged Duchess a youth whom she cannot fail to recognize as her nephew. But better counsels have prevailed. Dormer Colville, to whom we owe so much, has placed us in his farther debt for a piece of sage advice. 'Wait,' he advises, 'until the young man has learned what is expected of him, until he has made the personal acquaintance of his supporters. Reserve until the end the presentation to the Duchesse d'Angouleme, which must only be made when all the Royalists in France are ready to act with a unanimity which will be absolute, and an energy which must prove irresistible.'
"There are more material proofs than a face so strongly resembling that of Louis XVI and Monsieur d'Artois, in their early manhood, as to take the breath away; than a vivacity inherited from his grandmother, together with an independence of spirit and impatience of restraint; than the slight graceful form, blue eyes, and fair skin of the little prisoner of the Temple. There are dates which go to prove that this boy's father was rescued from a sinking fishing-boat, near Dieppe, a few days after the little Dauphin was known to have escaped from the Temple, and to have been hurried to the north coast disguised as a girl. There is evidence, which Monsieur Colville is now patiently gathering from these slow-speaking people, that the woman who was rescued with this child was not his mother. And there are a hundred details known to the villagers here which go to prove what we have always suspected to be the case, namely, that Louis XVII was rescued from the Temple by the daring and ingenuity of a devoted few who so jealously guarded their secret that they frustrated their own object; for they one and all must have perished on the guillotine, or at the hands of some other assassin, without divulging their knowledge, and in the confusion and horror of those days the little Dauphin was lost to sight.
"There is a trinket—a locket—containing a miniature, which I am assured is a portrait of Marie Antoinette. This locket is in the possession of Dormer Colville, who suggests that we should refrain from using violence to open it until this can be done in France in the presence of suitable witnesses. A fall or some mishap has so crushed the locket that it can only be opened by a jeweller provided with suitable instruments. It has remained closed for nearly a quarter of a century, but a reliable witness in whose possession it has been since he, who was undoubtedly Louis XVII, died in his arms, remembers the portrait, and has no doubt of its authenticity. I have told you enough to make it clear to you that my search is at last ended. What we require now is money to enable us to bring this King of France to his own; to bring him, in the first place, to my humble chateau of Gemosac, where he can lie hidden until all arrangements are made. I leave it to you, my dear Albert, to collect this preliminary sum."
De Chantonnay folded the letter and looked at the faces surrounding the dimly lighted table.
Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence, who must have known the contents of the letter, and, therefore, came provided, leaned across the table with a discreet clink of jewellery and laid before Albert de Chantonnay a note for a thousand francs.
"I am only an Englishwoman," she said, simply, "but I can help."
THE SECRET OF GEMOSAC
There is no sentiment so artificial as international hatred. In olden days it owed its existence to churchmen, and now an irresponsible press foments that dormant antagonism. Wherever French and English individuals are thrown together by a common endeavour, both are surprised at the mutual esteem which soon develops into friendship. But as nations we are no nearer than we were in the great days of Napoleon.
Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence was only one-quarter French and three-quarters English. Her grandmother had been a St. Pierre; but it was not from that lady that she inherited a certain open-handedness which took her French friends by surprise.
"It is not that she has the cause at heart," commented Madame de Chantonnay, as she walked laboriously on Albert's arm down the ramp of the Chateau de Gemosac at the termination of the meeting. "It is not for that that she throws her note of a thousand francs upon the table and promises more when things are in train. It is because she can refuse nothing to Dormer Colville. Allez, my son! I have a woman's heart! I know!"
Albert contented himself with a sardonic laugh. He was not in the humour to talk of women's hearts; for Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence's action had struck a sudden note of British realism into the harmony of his political fancies. He had talked so much, had listened to so much talk from others, that the dream of a restored monarchy had at last been raised to those far realms of the barely possible in which the Gallic fancy wanders in moments of facile digestion.
It was sufficient for the emergency that the others present at the meeting could explain that one does not carry money in one's pocket in a country lane at night, But in their hearts all were conscious of a slight feeling of resentment toward Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence; of a vague sense of disappointment, such as a dreamer may experience on being roughly awakened.
The three priests folded their hands with complacency. Poverty, their most cherished possession, spoke for itself in their case. The notary blinked and fumbled at his lips with yellow fingers in hasty thought. He was a Royalist notary because there existed in the country of the Deux Sevres a Royalist clientele. In France, even a washerwoman must hold political views and stand or fall by them. It was astounding how poor every one felt at that moment, and it rested, as usual, with a woman's intuition to grasp the only rope within reach. "The vintage," this lady murmured. The vintage promised to be a bad one. Nothing, assuredly, could be undertaken, and no promise made, until the vintage was over.
So the meeting broke up without romance, and the conspirators dispersed to their homes, carrying in their minds that mutual distrust which is ever awakened in human hearts by the chink of gold, while the dormant national readiness to detect betrayal by England was suddenly wide awake.
Nevertheless, Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence had supplied the one ingredient necessary to leaven the talk of these dreamers into action. Even the notary found himself compelled to contribute when Albert de Chantonnay asked him outright for a subscription. And the priests, ably led by the Abbe Touvent, acted after the manner of the sons of Levi since olden times. They did not give themselves, but they told others to give, which is far better.
In due course the money was sent to England. It was the plain truth that the Marquis de Gemosac had not sufficient in his pocket to equip Loo Barebone with the clothes necessary to a seemly appearance in France; or, indeed, to cover the expense of the journey thither. Dormer Colville never had money to spare. "Heaven shaped me for a rich man," he would say, lightly, whenever the momentous subject was broached, "but forgot to fill my pockets."
It was almost the time of the vintage, and the country roads were dotted with the shambling figures of those knights of industry who seem to spring from the hedgerows at harvest-time in any country in the world, when the Abbe Touvent sought out Marie in her cottage at the gates of the chateau.
"A la cave" answered the lady's voice. "In the cellar—do you not know that it is Monday and I wash?"
The Abbe did not repeat his summons on the kitchen table with the handle of his stick, but drew forward a chair.
"I know it is very hot, and that I am tired," he shouted toward the cellar door, which stood open, giving egress to a warm smell of soap.
"Precisely—and does Monsieur l'Abbe want me to come up as I am?"
The suggestion was darkly threatening, and the Abbe replied that Marie must take her time, since it was washing-day.
The cottage was built on sloping ground at the gate of the chateau, probably of the stones used for some earlier fortification. That which Marie called the cellar was but half underground, and had an exit to the garden which grew to the edge of the cliff. It was not long before she appeared at the head of the stone steps, a square-built woman with a face that had been sunburnt long ago by work in the vineyards, and eyes looking straight at the world from beneath a square and wrinkled forehead.
"Monsieur l'Abbe," she said, shortly—a salutation, and a comment in one; for it conveyed the fact that she saw it was he and perceived that he was in his usual health. "It is news from Monsieur, I suppose," she added, slowly, turning down her sleeves.
"Yes, the Marquis writes that he is on his way to Gemosac and wishes you to prepare the chateau for his return."
The Abbe waved his hand toward the castle gates with an air suggestive of retainers and lackeys, of busy stables and a hundred windows lighted after dark. His round eyes did not meet the direct glance fixed on his face, but wandered from one object to another in the room, finally lighting on the great key of the chateau gate, which hung on a nail behind the door.
"Then Monsieur le Marquis is coming into residence," said Marie, gravely.
And by way of reply the Abbe waved his hand a second time toward the castle walls.
"And the worst of it is," he added, timidly, to this silent admission, "that he brings a guest."
He moistened his fat lips and sat smiling in a foolish way at the open door; for he was afraid of all women, and most afraid of Marie.
"Ah!" she retorted, shortly. "To sleep in the oubliette, one may suppose. For there is no other bed in the chateau, as you quite well know, Monsieur l'Abbe. It is another of your kings no doubt. Oh! you need not hold up your hands—when Monsieur Albert reads aloud that letter from Monsieur le Marquis, in England, without so much as closing the door of the banquet hall! It is as well that it was no other than I who stood on the stairs outside and heard all."
"But it is wrong to listen behind doors," protested the Abbe.
"Ah, bah!" replied this unregenerate sheep of his flock. "But do not alarm yourself, Monsieur l'Abbe, I can keep a quiet tongue. And a political secret—what is it? It is an amusement for the rich—your politics—but a vice for the poor. Come, let us go to the chateau, while there is still day, and you can see for yourself whether we are ready for a guest."
While she spoke she hastily completed a toilet, which, despite the Abbe's caution, had the appearance of incompleteness, and taking the great key from behind the door, led the way out into the glare of the setting sun. She unlocked the great gate and threw her weight against it with quick, firm movements like the movements of a man. Indeed, she was a better man than her companion; of a stronger common sense; with lither limbs and a stouter heart; the best man that France has latterly produced, and, so far as the student of racial degeneration may foretell, will ever produce again—her middle-class woman.
Built close against the flanking tower on the left hand of the courtyard was a low, square house of two stories only. The whole ground floor was stabling, room and to spare for half a hundred horses, and filled frequently enough, no doubt, in the great days of the Great Henry. On the first floor, to which three or four staircases gave access, there were plenty of apartments; indeed, suites of them. But nearly all stood empty, and the row of windows looked blank and curtainless across the crumbling garden to the Italian house.
It was one of the many tragedies of that smiling, sunny land where only man, it seems, is vile; for nature has enclosed within its frontier-lines all the varied wealth and beauty of her treasures.
Marie led the way up the first staircase, which was straight and narrow. The carpet, carefully rolled and laid aside on the landing, was threadbare and colourless. The muslin curtains, folded back and pinned together, were darned and yellow with frequent washing and the rust of ancient damp. She opened the door of the first room at the head of the stairs. It had once been the apartment of some servitor; now it contained furniture of the gorgeous days of Louis XIV, with all the colour gone from its tapestry, all the woodwork grey and worm-eaten.
"Not that one," said Marie, as the Abbe struggled with the lever that fastened the window. "That one has not been opened for many years. See! the glass rattles in the frame. It is the other that opens."
Without comment the Abbe opened the other window and threw back the shutters, from which all the paint had peeled away, and let in the scented air. Mignonette close at hand—which had bloomed and died and cast its seed amid the old walls and falling stones since Marie Antoinette had taught the women of France to take an interest in their gardens; and from the great plains beyond—flat and fat—carefully laid there by the Garonne to give the world its finest wines, rose up the subtle scent of vines in bloom.
"The drawing-room," said Marie, and making a mock-curtsey toward the door, which stood open to the dim stairs, she made a grand gesture with her hand, still red and wrinkled from the wash-tub. "Will the King of France be pleased to enter and seat himself? There are three chairs, but one of them is broken, so his Majesty's suite must stand."
With a strident laugh she passed on to the next room through folding doors.
"The principal room," she announced, with that hard irony in her voice, which had, no doubt, penetrated thither from the soul of a mother who had played no small part in the Revolution. "The guest-chamber, one may say, provided that Monsieur le Marquis will sleep on the floor in the drawing-room, or in the straw down below in the stable."
The Abbe threw open the shutter of this room also and stood meekly eyeing Marie with a tolerant smile. The room was almost bare of furniture. A bed such as peasants sleep on; a few chairs; a dressing-table tottering against the window-breast, and modestly screened in one corner, the diminutive washing-stand still used in southern France. For Gemosac had been sacked and the furniture built up into a bonfire when Marie was a little child and the Abbe Touvent a fat-faced timorous boy at the Seminary of Saintes.
"Beyond is Mademoiselle's room," concluded Marie, curtly. She looked round her and shrugged her shoulders with a grim laugh which made the Abbe shrink. They looked at each other in silence, the two participants in the secret of Gemosac; for Marie's husband, the third who had access to the chateau, did not count. He was a shambling, silent man, now working in the vineyard beneath the walls. He always did what his wife told him, without comment or enthusiasm, knowing well that he would be blamed for doing it badly.
The Abbe had visited the rooms once before, during a brief passage of the Marquis, soon after his wife's death in Paris. But, as a rule, only Marie and Jean had access to the apartment. He looked round with an eye always ready with the tear of sympathy; for he was a soft-hearted man. Then he looked at Marie again, shamefacedly. But she, divining his thoughts, shrugged her shoulders.
"Ah, bah!" she said, "one must take the world as it is. And Monsieur le Marquis is only a man. One sees that, when he announces his return on washing-day, and brings a guest. You must write to him, that is all, and tell him that with time I can arrange, but not in a hurry like this. Where is the furniture to come from? A chair or two from the banquet-hall; I can lend a bed which Jean can carry in after dark so that no one knows; you have the jug and basin you bought when the Bishop came, that you must lend—" She broke off and ran to the window. "Good," she cried, in a despairing voice, "I hear a carriage coming up the hill. Run, Monsieur l'Abbe—run to the gate and bolt it. Guest or no guest, they cannot see the rooms like this. Here, let me past."
She pushed him unceremoniously aside at the head of the stairs and ran past him. Long concealment of the deadly poverty within the walls had taught her to close the gates behind her whenever she entered, but now for greater security, or to gain time, she swung the great oaken beam round on its pivot across the doors on the inside. Then turning round on her heels she watched the bell that hung above her head. The Abbe, who had followed her as quickly as he could, was naively looking for a peep-hole between the timbers of the huge doors.
A minute later the bell swung slowly, and gave a single clang which echoed beneath the vaulted roof, and in the hollow of the empty towers on either side.
"Marie, Marie!" cried a gay girlish voice from without. "Open at once. It is I."
"There," said Marie, in a whisper. "It is Mademoiselle, who has returned from the good Sisters. And the story that you told of the fever at Saintes is true."
WITHIN THE GATES
The great bell hanging inside the gates of Gemosac was silent for two days after the return of Juliette de Gemosac from her fever-stricken convent school, at Saintes.
But on the third day, soon after nightfall, it rang once more, breaking suddenly in on the silence of the shadowy courts and gardens, bidding the frogs in the tank be still with a soft, clear voice, only compassed by the artificers who worked in days when silver was little accounted of in the forging of a bell.
It was soon after eight o'clock, and darkness had not long covered the land and sent the workers home. There was no moon. Indeed, the summons to the gate, coming so soon after nightfall, seemed to suggest the arrival of a traveller, who had not deemed it expedient to pass through the winding streets of Gemosac by daylight.
The castle lies on a height, sufficiently removed from the little town to temper the stir of its streets to a pleasant and unobtrusive evidence of neighbourhood. Had the traveller come in a carriage, the sound of its wheels would certainly have been heard; and nearer at hand, the tramp of horses on the hollow of the old drawbridge, not raised these hundred years, must have heralded the summons of the bell. But none of these sounds had warned Juliette de Gemosac, who sat alone in the little white room upstairs, nor Marie and her husband, dumb and worn by the day's toil, who awaited bedtime on a stone seat by the stable door.
Juliette, standing at the open window, heard Jean stir himself, and shuffle, in his slippers, toward the gate.
"It is some one who comes on foot," she heard Marie say. "Some beggar—the roads are full of them. See that he gets no farther than the gate."
She heard Jean draw back the bolts and answer gruffly, in a few words, through the interstice of a grudging door, what seemed to be inquiries made in a voice that was not the voice of a peasant. Marie rose and went to the gate. In a few minutes they returned, and Juliette drew back from the window, for they were accompanied by the new-comer, whose boots made a sharper, clearer sound on the cobble-stones.
"Yes," Juliette heard him explain, "I am an Englishman, but I come from Monsieur de Gemosac, for all that. And since Mademoiselle is here, I must see her. It was by chance that I heard, on the road, that there is fever at Saintes, and that she had returned home. I was on my way to Saintes to see her and give her my news of her father."
"But what news?" asked Marie, and the answer was lost as the speakers passed into the doorway, the new-comer evidently leading the way, the peasant and his wife following without protest, and with that instinctive obedience to unconscious command which will survive all the iconoclasm of a hundred revolutions.
There followed a tramping on the stairs and a half-suppressed laugh as the new-comer stumbled upward. Marie opened the door slowly.
"It is a gentleman," she announced, "who does not give his name."
Juliette de Gemosac was standing at the far side of the table, with the lamp throwing its full light upon her. She was dressed in white, with a blue ribbon at her waist and wrists. Another ribbon of the same colour tied back her hair, which was of a bright brown, with curls that caught the light in a score of tendrils above her ears. No finished coquette could have planned a prettier surprise than that which awaited Loo Barebone, as he made Marie stand aside, and came, hat in hand, into the room.
He paused for an instant, breathless, before Juliette, who stood, with a little smile of composed surprise parting her lips. This child, fresh from the quiet of a convent-school, was in no wise taken aback nor at a loss how to act. She did not speak, but stood with head erect, not ungracious, looking at him with clear brown eyes, awaiting his explanation. And Loo Barebone, all untaught, who had never spoken to a French lady in his life, came forward with an assurance and a readiness which must have lain dormant in his blood, awaiting the magic of this moment.
"Since my name would convey nothing to Mademoiselle," he said, with a bow which he had assuredly not learnt in Farlingford, "it was useless to mention it. But it is at the disposal of Mademoiselle, nevertheless. It is an English name—Barebone. I am the Englishman who has been fortunate enough to engage the interest of your father, who journeyed to England to find me—and found me."
He broke off with a laugh, spreading out his arms to show himself, as it were, and ask indulgence.
"I have a heritage, it appears, in France," he went on, "but know nothing of it, yet. For the weather has been bad and our voyage a stormy one. I was to have been told during the journey, but we had no time for that. And I know no more than you, mademoiselle."
Juliette had changed colour, and her cheeks, which were usually of a most delicate pink, were suddenly quite white. She did not touch upon the knowledge to which he referred, but went past it to its object.
"You do not speak like an Englishman," she said. "For I know one or two. One came to the school at Saintes. He was a famous English prelate, and he had the manner—well, of a tree. And when he spoke, it was what one would expect of a tree, if it suddenly had speech. But you—you are not like that."
Loo Barebone laughed with an easy gaiety, which seemed infectious, though Marie did not join in it, but stood scowling in the doorway.
"Yes," he said, "you have described them exactly. I know a hundred who are like great trees. Many are so, but they are kind and still like trees—the English, when you know them, mademoiselle."
"They?" she said, with her prettily arched eyebrows raised high.
"We, I mean," he answered, quickly, taking her meaning in a flash. "I almost forgot that I was an Englishman. It is my heritage, perhaps, that makes me forget—or yourself. It is so easy and natural to consider one's self a Frenchman—and so pleasant."
Marie shuffled with her feet and made a movement of impatience, as if to remind them that they were still far from the business in hand and were merely talking of themselves, which is the beginning of all things—or may be the beginning of the inevitable end.
"But I forgot," said Barebone, at once. "And it is getting late. Your father has had a slight misfortune. He has sprained his ankle. He is on board my ship, the ship of which I am—I have been—an officer, lying at anchor in the river near here, off the village of Mortagne. I came from Mortagne at your father's request, with certain messages, for yourself, mademoiselle, and for Marie—if Madame is Marie."
"Yes," replied the grim voice in the doorway. "Madame is Marie."
Loo had turned toward her. It seemed his happy fate to be able to disarm antagonism at the first pass. He looked at Marie and smiled; and slowly, unwillingly, her grim face relaxed.
"Well," he said, "you are not to expect Monsieur le Marquis to-night, nor yet, for some time to come. For he will go on to Bordeaux, where he can obtain skilled treatment for his injured ankle, and remain there until he can put his foot to the ground. He is comfortable enough on board the ship, which will proceed up the river to-morrow morning to Bordeaux. Monsieur le Marquis also told me to set your mind at rest on another point. He was to have brought with him a guest—"
Loo paused and bowed to Marie, with a gay grace.
"A humble one. But I am not to come to Gemosac just now. I am going, instead, with Monsieur Dormer Colville, to stay at Royan with Mrs. St. Pierre Lawrence. It is, I hope, a pleasure deferred. I cannot, it appears, show myself in Bordeaux at present, and I quit the ship to-night. It is some question of myself and my heritage in France, which I do not understand."
"Is that so?" said Marie. "One can hardly believe it."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing," replied Marie, looking at his face with a close scrutiny, as if it were familiar to her.
"And that is all that I had to tell you, Madame Marie," concluded Barebone.
And, strangely enough, Marie smiled at him as he turned away, not unkindly.
"To you, mademoiselle," he went on, turning again to Juliette, whose hand was at her hair, for she had been taken by surprise, "my message is simpler. Monsieur, your father, will be glad to have your society at Bordeaux, while he stays there, if that is true which the Gironde pilot told him—of fever at Saintes, and the hurried dispersal of the schools."
"It is true enough, monsieur," answered Juliette, in her low-pitched voice of the south, and with a light of anticipation in her eye; for it was dull enough at Gemosac, all alone in this empty chateau. "But how am I to reach Bordeaux?"
"Your father did not specify the route or method. He seemed to leave that to you, mademoiselle. He seemed to have an entire faith in your judgment, and that is why I was so surprised when I saw you. I thought—well, I figured to myself that you were older, you understand."
He broke off with a laugh and a deprecatory gesture of the hand, as if he had more in his mind but did not want to put it into words. His meaning was clear enough in his eyes, but Juliette was fresh from a convent-school, where they seek earnestly to teach a woman not to be a woman.
"One may be young, and still have understanding, monsieur," she said, with the composed little smile on her demure lips, which must only have been the composure of complete innocence: almost a monopoly of children, though some women move through life without losing it.
"Yes," answered Loo, looking into her eyes. "So it appears. So, how will you go to Bordeaux? How does one go from Gemosac to Bordeaux?"
"By carriage to Mortagne, where a boat is always to be obtained. It is a short journey, if the tide is favourable," broke in Marie, who was practical before she was polite.
"Then," said Loo, as quick as thought, "drive back with me now to Mortagne. I have left my horse in the town, my boat at the pier at Mortagne. It is an hour's drive. In an hour and a half you will be on board 'The Last Hope,' at anchor in the river. There is accommodation on board for both you and Madame; for I, alas! Leave the ship to-night with Monsieur Colville, and thus vacate two cabins."
Juliette reflected for a moment, but she did not consult, even by a glance, Marie; who, in truth, appeared to expect no such confidences, but awaited the decision with a grim and grudging servitude which was as deeply pressed in upon her soul as was the habit of command in the soul of a de Gemosac.
"Yes," said Juliette, at length, "that will be best. It is, of course, important that my father should reach Bordeaux as soon as possible."
"He will be there at midday to-morrow, if you will come with me now," answered Loo, and his gay eyes said "Come!" as clearly as his lips, though Juliette could not, of course, be expected to read such signals.
The affair was soon settled, and Jean ordered to put the horse into the high, old-fashioned carriage still in use at the chateau. For Juliette de Gemosac seemed to be an illustration of the fact, known to many much-tried parents, that one is never too young to know one's mind.
"There is a thunder-storm coming from the sea," was Jean's only comment.
There was some delay in starting; for Marie had to change her own clothes as well as pack her young mistress's simple trunks. But the time did not hang heavily on the hands of the two waiting in the little drawing-room, and Marie turned an uneasy glance toward the open door more than once at the sound of their laughter.
Barebone was riding a horse hired in the village of Mortagne, and quitted the chateau first, on foot, saying that the carriage must necessarily travel quicker than he, as his horse was tired. The night was dark, and darkest to the west, where lightning danced in and out among heavy clouds over the sea.
As in all lands that have been torn hither and thither by long wars, the peasants of Guienne learnt, long ago, the wisdom of dwelling together in closely built villages, making a long journey to their fields or vineyards every day. In times past, Gemosac had been a walled town, dominated, as usual, by the almost impregnable castle.
Barebone rode on, alone, through the deserted vineyards, of which the scent, like that of a vinery in colder lands, was heavy and damp. The road runs straight, from point to point, and there was no chance of missing the way or losing his companions. He was more concerned with watching the clouds, which were rising in dark towers against the western sky. He had noted that others were watching them, also, standing at their doors in every street. It was the period of thunder and hailstorms—the deadly foe of the vine.
At length Barebone pulled up and waited; for he could hear the sound of wheels behind him, and noted that it was not increasing in loudness.
"Can you not go faster?" he shouted to Jean, when, at length, the carriage approached.
Jean made no answer, but lashed his horse and pointed upward to the sky with his whip. Barebone rode in front to encourage the slower horse. At the village of Mortagne he signed to Jean to wait before the inn until he had taken his horse to the stable and paid for its hire. Then he clambered to the box beside him and they rattled down the long street and out into the open road that led across the marshes to the port—a few wooden houses and a jetty, running out from the shallows to the channel.
When they reached the jetty, going slowly at the last through the heavy dust, the air was still and breathless. The rounded clouds still towered above them, making the river black with their deep shadows. A few lights twinkled across the waters. They were the lightships marking the middle bank of the Gironde, which is many miles wide at this spot and rendered dangerous by innumerable sand-banks.
"In five minutes it will be upon us," said Jean. "You had better turn back."
"Oh, no," was the reply, with a reassuring laugh. "In the country where I come from, they do not turn back."
THE LIFTED VEIL
"Where is the boatman?" asked Marie, as she followed Juliette and Barebone along the deserted jetty. A light burnt dimly at the end of it and one or two boats must have been moored near at hand; for the water could be heard lapping under their bows, a secretive, whispering sound full of mystery.
"I am the boatman," replied Loo, over his shoulder. "Are you afraid?"
"What is the good of being afraid?" asked this woman of the world, stopping at the head of the steps and peering down into the darkness into which he had descended. "What is the good of being afraid when one is old and married? I was afraid enough when I was a girl, and pretty and coquette like Mademoiselle, here. I was afraid enough then, and it was worth my while—allez!"
Barebone made no answer to this dark suggestion of a sprightly past. The present darkness and the coming storm commanded his full attention. In the breathless silence, Juliette and Marie—and behind them, Jean, panting beneath the luggage balanced on his shoulder—could hear the wet rope slipping through his fingers and, presently, the bump of the heavy boat against the timber of the steps.
This was followed by the gurgle of a rope through a well-greased sheave and the square lug, which had been the joy of little Sep Marvin at Farlingford, crept up to the truck of the stubby mast.
"There is no wind for that," remarked Marie, pessimistically.
"There will be to spare in a few minutes," answered Barebone, and the monosyllabic Jean gave an acquiescent grunt.
"Luggage first," said Barebone, lapsing into the curtness of the sea. "Come along. Let us make haste."
They stumbled on board as best they could, and were guided to a safe place amidships by Loo, who had thrown a spare sail on the bottom of the boat.
"As low as you can," he said. "Crouch down. Cover yourselves with this. Right over your heads."
"But why?" grumbled Marie.
"Listen," was all the answer he gave her. And as he spoke, the storm rushed upon them like a train, with the roar and whirl of a locomotive.
Loo jumped aft to the tiller. In the rush of the hail, they heard him give a sharp order to Jean, who must have had some knowledge of the sea, for he obeyed at once, and the boat, set free, lurched forward with a flap of her sail, which was like the report of a cannon. For a moment, all seemed confusion and flapping chaos, then came a sense of tenseness, and the boat heeled over with a swish, which added a hundred-weight of solid water to the beating of the hail on the spare sail, beneath which the women crouched.
"What? Did you speak?" shouted Loo, putting his face close to the canvas.
"It is only Marie calling on the saints," was the answer, in Juliette's laughing voice.
In a few minutes it was over; and, even at the back of the winds, could be heard the retreat of the hail as it crashed onward toward the valleys of which every slope is a named vineyard, to beat down in a few wild moments the result of careful toil and far-sighted expenditure; to wipe out that which is unique, which no man can replace—the vintage of a year.
When the hail ceased beating on it, Juliette pushed back the soaked canvas, which had covered them like a roof, and lifted her face to the cooler air. The boat was rushing through the water, and close to Juliette's cheek, just above the gunwale, rose a curved wave, green and white, and all shimmering with phosphorescence, which seemed to hover like a hawk above its prey.
The aftermath of the storm was flying overhead in riven ribbons of cloud, through which the stars were already peeping. To the westward the sky was clear, and against the last faint glow of the departed sun the lightning ran hither and thither, skipping and leaping, without sound or cessation, like fairies dancing.
Immediately overhead, the sail creaked and tugged at its earings, while the wind sang its high clear song round mast and halliards.
Juliette turned to look at Barebone. He was standing, ankle deep, in water, leaning backward to windward, in order to give the boat every pound of weight he could. The lambent summer-lightning on the western horizon illuminated his face fitfully. In that moment Juliette saw what is given to few to see and realise—though sailors, perforce, lie down to sleep knowing it every night—that under Heaven her life was wholly and solely in the two hands of a fellow-being. She knew it, and saw that Barebone knew it, though he never glanced at her. She saw the whites of his eyes gleaming as he looked up, from moment to moment, to the head of the sail and stooped again to peer under the foot of it into the darkness ahead. He braced himself, with one foot against the thwart, to haul in a few inches of sheet, to which the clumsy boat answered immediately. Marie was praying aloud now, and when she opened her eyes the sight of the tossing figure in the stern of the boat suddenly turned her terror into anger.
"Ah!" she cried, "that Jean is a fool. And he, who pretends to have been a fisherman when he was young—to let us come to our deaths like this!"
She lifted her head, and ducked it again, as a sea jumped up under the bow and rattled into the boat.
"I see no ship," she cried. "Let us go back, if we can. Name of God!—we shall be drowned! I see no ship, I tell you!"
"But I do," answered Barebone, shaking the water from his face, for he had no hand to spare. "But I do, which is more important. And you are not even wet!"
And he laughed as he brought the boat up into the wind for a few seconds, to meet a wild gust. Juliette turned in surprise at the sound of his voice. In the safe and gentle seclusion of the convent-school no one had thought to teach her that death may be faced with equanimity by others than the ordained of the Church, and that in the storm and stress of life men laugh in strange places and at odd times.
Loo was only thinking of his boat and watching the sky for the last of the storm—that smack, as it were, in the face—with which the Atlantic ends those black squalls that she sends us, not without thunder and the curtailed lightning of northern seas. He was planning and shaping his course; for the watchers on board "The Last Hope" had already seen him, as he could ascertain by a second light, which suddenly appeared, swung low, casting a gleam across the surf-strewn water, to show him where the ladder hung overside.
"Tell Monsieur de Gemosac that I have Mademoiselle and her maid here in the boat," Barebone called out to Captain Clubbe, whose large face loomed above the lantern he was holding overside, as he made fast the rope that had been thrown across his boat and lowered the dripping sail. The water was smooth enough under the lee of "The Last Hope," which, being deeply laden, lay motionless at her anchor, with the stream rustling past her cables.
"Stand up, mademoiselle," said Barebone, himself balanced on the after-thwart. "Hold on to me, thus, and when I let you go, let yourself go."
There was no time to protest or to ask questions. And Juliette felt herself passed on from one pair of strong arms to another, until she was standing on the deck under the humming rigging, surrounded by men who seemed huge in their gleaming oil-skins.
"This way, mademoiselle," said one, who was even larger than the others, in English, of which she understood enough to catch his meaning. "I will take you to your father. Show a light this way, one of you."
His fingers closed round her arm, and he led her, unconscious of a strength that almost lifted her from her feet, toward an open door, where a lamp burnt dimly within. It smelt abominably of an untrimmed wick, Juliette thought, and the next minute she was kissing her father, who lay full length on a locker in the little cabin.
She asked him a hundred questions, and waited for few of the answers. Indeed, she supplied most of them herself; for she was very quick and gay.
"I see," she cried, "that your foot has been tied up by a sailor. He has tried to mend it as if it were a broken spar. I suppose that was the Captain who brought me to you, and then ran away again, as soon as he could. Yes; I have Marie with me. She is telling them to be careful with the luggage. I can hear her. I am so glad we had a case of fever at the school. It was a lay sister, a stupid woman. But how lucky that I should be at home just when you wanted me!"
She stood upright again, after deftly loosening the bandage round her father's ankle, and looked at him and laughed.
"Poor, dear old papa," she said. "One sees that you want some one to take care of you. And this cabin—oh! mon Dieu! how bare and uncomfortable! I suppose men have to go to sea alone because they can persuade no woman to go with them."
She pounced upon her father again, and arranged afresh the cushions behind his back, with a little air of patronage and protection. Her back was turned toward the door, when some one came in, but she heard the approaching steps and looked quickly round the cabin walls.
"Heavens!" she exclaimed, in a gay whisper. "No looking-glass! One sees that it is only men who live here."
And she turned, with smiling eyes and a hand upraised to her disordered hair, to note the new-comer. It was Dormer Colville, who laid aside his waterproof as he came and greeted her as an old friend. He had, indeed, known her since her early childhood, and had always succeeded in keeping pace with her, even in the rapid changes of her last year at school.
"Here is an adventure," he said, shaking hands. "But I can see that you have taken no harm, and have not even been afraid. For us, it is a pleasant surprise."
He glanced at her with a smiling approbation, not without a delicate suggestion of admiration, such as he might well permit himself, and she might now even consider her due. He was only keeping pace.
"I stayed behind to initiate your maid, who is, of course, unused to a ship, and the steward speaks but little French. But now they are arranging your cabin together."
"How delightful!" cried Juliette. "I have never been on a ship before, you know. And it is all so strange and so nice. All those big men, like wet ghosts, who said nothing! I think they are more interesting than women; perhaps it is because they talk less."
"Perhaps it is," admitted Colville, with a sudden gravity, similar to that with which she had made the suggestion.
"You should hear the Sisters talk—when they are allowed," she said, confidentially.
"And whisper when they are not. I can imagine it," laughed Colville. "But now you have left all that behind, and have come out into the world—of men, one may say. And you have begun at once with an adventure."
"Yes! And we are going to Bordeaux, papa and I, until his foot is well again. Of course, I was in despair when I was first told of it, but now that I see him I am no longer anxious. And your messenger assured me that it was not serious."