In Normandy


Ella D'Arcy

First published in Temple Bar, July 1, 1904

This edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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In Normandy

Two men, a pail of water, and a bicycle, were grouped together under a tree, opposite a wayside inn in Normandy. A second cycle stood propped against another tree a little distance off. It was the owner of this second machine who stooped patiently over the pail. He had taken off his jacket, his shirt-sleeves were rolled up, and his young forehead was thickened with frowns. Presently he straightened his back, shook his dripping arms and hands, and left the tyre he had been testing lying in the water.

“The rotten thing’s punctured in half-a-dozen places,” he announced disgustedly, “and it’s still about thirty-six miles to Caen. You can’t ride thirty-six miles on the rims.”

The elder man to whom the defaulting tyre belonged, replied with equanimity; “I don’t intend to ride another thirty-six inches. I‘m going to stay here. That last nail I picked up is a clear indication that fortune desires me to stay. And one should never try to be wiser than fortune. That one does try is, I believe, the reason why things so often turn out ill.”.

“Ah, yes! The lazy chap’s creed,” said the other with a touch of superiority; the superiority of the record-maker for him who despiseth records. “For the last day or two, West, I’ve suspected you were funking it, and when you went and filled your pockets with those rubbishy yellow-backs in Rouen yesterday, I felt pretty sure the next thing you’d want would be a place to read ’em in. Well, the place looks good enough, I allow, but I’m going to stick to the plan we set out with. It would be too poor to have to own up to the fellows at home that we panned out so early in the game.”

So the sometime companions took a last drink together at West’s expense, exchanging good wishes, and the young man wheeled onwards alone. He wheeled out of the story, but he found his reward in the large sum total of miles he was subsequently able to lay claim to, and he carried with him the recollection of several hotel names, of many good meals, and of the amount he had been over-charged for a melon, as well as proof positive that “old West was no sportsman.” Unimportant details concerning sunsets, scenery, or the manners and customs of Normandy, with which some folks burden their memories, he did not need to forget; he had never assimilated these at all.

West was not sorry to be left alone. He had begun to weary of bicycle talk, even more than of the daily task to be accomplished coûte que coûte. And it was not to be denied that the uncut books in his pocket, the new Loti, the last Anatole France, were calling insistently to be read. It seemed certain that nowhere would he find a more propitious spot in which to read them.

The Maison Brulée is a cliff-top inn, six-hundred feet above the Seine, and the forest of La Londe begins at its very door. The house stands on the site of a predecessor, burned down by the Prussians in the year of the war. They burned down the forest as well, thousands of acres, so that the present trees are but young wood, but they spared the grove of immemorial elms and oaks just opposite the inn door. They spared it for sentimental reasons; for its beauty, for its cool, deep shade, sprinkled with sunshine, for the pleasure of taking their meals under its massive foliage. There they sat, Prussians and Saxons, Swabians and Bavarians, toasting their respective sovereigns and their common fatherland, and with a foot on the table, and a “Hoch!” flung to heaven, drank to the success of the war. Then when their marching orders came, they burned down the house and moved blithely onwards. Hence the name of the inn.

All day long the door stands open, and dogs and cats, bees and guests, wander in and out at will. And the door opens straight upon the kitchen with its clean, bricked floor, and shining rows of copper stew-pans. This, indeed, is the only way into the house. The naiveté of such an arrangement, its exquisite honesty, completely won West’s heart, and when the pretty, rather timid young patronne took him upstairs to show him the bedroom which she had to offer him, a large room with a large window opening upon a wooden balcony tapestried with tea-roses, he thought he could be content to spend the entire summer there.

But Madame Chauvel explained that he could only have the room for a fortnight. At the end of that time it, and the two contiguous rooms, would be occupied by some Parisians who had engaged them at Easter, when they happened to come up on a day-excursion from Rouen. Of course there were other rooms above, attic rooms, but probably monsieur would not desire to stay very long? The forest was always beautiful, truly, but there was not much for monsieur to do.

Monsieur, however, from the very first moment of his sojourn found doing nothing the most admirable occupation in the world, and from seven o’clock in the morning, when Léocadie, the chamber-maid, brought him his coffee, to eleven o’clock at night when he laid himself down to unbroken slumber, no smallest division of time hung heavy on his hands.

Yet, judged by British standards, his conduct was hopelessly inane. He took no steps to have his wheel repaired, he made no inquiries concerning places of interest in the vicinity, he neither rode nor drove. If he went down to La Bouille at all, it was not, as one might expect, to make a steamer excursion to Rouen or Le Havre, it was not to hire a boat and expand his chest in rowing, not to exercise his skill in sailing across the wide river reaches. No; it was merely to sit at the little terraced café on the quay, and savouring his after-breakfast coffee, his before-dinner apéritif, to smoke, dream or read, just as he might have done up at the Maison Brulée without going a yard from the inn-door.

And, as a rule, he did not go many yards from it, for two minutes’ walking would bring him to any one of a hundred spots of green enchantment, where, lying comfortably among the concave roots of some beech tree, he would, in the intervals of reading, gaze upwards at the wonderful diapering of beech-leaves upon the far-away blue and white sky.

He was convinced there could be no life more invigorating and wholesome than the open-air life of the forest, and he honestly envied the lot of the wood-cutters when the ring of their area would reach him. But the forest was vast, and the work of wood-cutting shifted. A silent green enchantment brooded usually over the place, the chief characteristic of which, indeed, was its silence. Lying there, and inhaling the fragrance of the wild peppermint which he crushed between his fingers, he would listen to an audible silence unbroken by bird, or beast, or man, unbroken by any sound speaking of man’s occupation or man’s neighbourhood; and even while he listened he became conscious, through a thousand tiny, unfamiliar voices, that there is no such a condition as silence at all.

For he would hear the rustling murmur of myriads of ants passing over the top of their hill, the crick of a beetle on a dry leaf, the tiny trumpet of the warrior-insect as he follows the chase, the dropping of beech-mast from the tree-tops, with a sudden, small thud upon the ground. And, he told himself, it was only his own limited powers of hearing which protected him from a circumambient pandemonium of sound. With his auditory senses raised a few degrees might he not he stunned by the triumphant shouts of the grass as it grew, the terrific yawning of the trees as they stretched their arms and shook their fingers, the floutings of the spider and the pleadings of the fly, a whole babel of wagging tones, each urging his master’s interests? Which reflections induced West to conclude that men owed the Creator as much gratitude for the gifts withheld as for those given, and he buried himself again in his book.

Lapped in such pleasing open-air monotony the hour and the day slipped by. He was unpleasantly astonished when one morning Madame Chauvel reminded him that on the marrow she would require his room for the expected guests.

At first he resolved that he would stay on, nevertheless, and he had his belongings transferred to one of the attic chambers; but later, thinking things over, perhaps realising that his new room was hot and cramped, he changed his mind.

A family from Paris, with children—he could picture it; the elders stiff, towny, irreproachably dressed, the children insupportable and spoiled. He foresaw the results of such an invasion. Not only would all the careless freedom of the life, the delightful homeliness of the inn, disappear, but the friendliness of the Chauvels themselves would be chilled, the honesty of the servants would be tampered with, even the silent, smiling chef who made such excellent soupe au choux would lose, very likely, his straightforward culinery virtues in the endeavour to please jaded Parisian taste.

No, decidedly he would not stay; he would leave next morning for Dieppe.

 

His resolution was confirmed when, on returning from a last walk in the woods, he found an omnibus unloading piles of luggage at the inn-door; while a crowd of strangers—thus did his perturbed vision multiply the new arrivals—conversed volubly with the Chauvels, with Joseph the waiter, with Léocadie, with Amend the handy man, who had just driven them up. Innumerable little boys of the same height and the same size, all dressed precisely alike in jaunty French fashion, raced in and out between the grown-up people. Carefon, the grey chinchilla cat, sitting in the centre of one of the terrace-tables, looked on in lofty disapproval, the dogs Pacha and Carlos sniffed busily round, and the starling screamed in its cage against the wall.

West, in his youth, had suffered agonies of shyness; even now, in the presence of strange ladies, he was not particularly self-possessed. So, averting his head in true British fashion, and lifting his hat in deference to French custom, he got himself painfully past the new-comers and up to the safe shelter of his room. Then, when from his window he convinced himself that the coast was clear, he went down to his dinner beneath the trees.

But the new-comers were going to dine out of doors likewise, and that he might economise his steps Joseph began to lay a table for them near to West’s own. The Englishman was still engaged on the thick, pink wedge of melon with which the meal began, when the Parisians came out from the inn, crossed the road, and took their seats.

He found that the crowd resolved itself into three persons only, that the innumerable little boys were in reality no more than two; two vivacious, chattering, irrepressible infants, who were constantly recalled to order by a middle-aged father.

Of the ladies of the party, one, the wife evidently, sat immediately facing West. He supposed she would be considered good—looking; certainly the even white of her skin, her dark hair and dark dreamy eyes, made up a sufficiently agreeable first impression.

The younger lady sat with her back to West, affording him a good view of the careless-careful twists of her blonde hair and an occasional glimpse of an irregular profile, of an amusing, retroussé, much—powdered nose. The sister, no doubt, of the husband, or of the wife. West could not determine on which side the relationship lay, for she resembled neither. The husband and wife, indeed, were more like each other than either was like her. A case of that post-nuptial resemblance which so often establishes itself between married people.

During the short pauses in the meal, while Joseph flourished to and fro between the tables and the kitchen, West began to take a mild interest in his neighbours, to speculate idly upon their characters, upon their stories. The husband he assumed to be a civil servant of some sort. He appeared to be a good talker; possibly was fond of the pleasures of the table; and concealed, as West suspected, for authority’s sake, a tender heart beneath a false air of severity. The far-away, romantic look of the wife convinced him that she had been nourished on the poems of Lamartine. She seemed to cultivate silence, having generally nothing but a smile-a sweet smile certainly—in recompense for the sallies of the other two. The sister, on the other hand, was extremely conversational; talked and laughed incessantly, her powdered little nose wrinkled up, her blue muslin shoulders convulsed with merriment. West wondered how any human being could find so many things to say as did this young lady. He told himself that he did not probably drop as many words in a week, as she scattered prodigally over the table during the hour of dinner.

The moment dessert was finished, a dessert of wild strawberries eaten with a delicious sort of sweet cream cheese, the little boys sprang from their places, and with shrieks of “Ohé! Attrapé!” were chasing each other down the road.

The father broke off an appreciation of Flaubert—the party had come, then, by river, and Croisset, the water-side village, had suggested the theme—to shout his commands, his entreaties, that they should come back. But the children were already sufficiently far off to feign being out of earshot with impunity.

“Very well then, we must follow them,” decided their father dolorously, and West understood his reluctance at having to forego his after-dinner repose, and swallow his calvados at one gulp. “It’s madness to allow them to go off alone like that. For imagine if they were to meet with a tramp, or a fierce dog!”

The apprehensions which obsessed him showed haggard upon his face. The women laughed but humoured him. They rose and linked arms. All three set out after the children. Their retreating figures were silhouetted against a breadth of pale green sky, a green which flowed up through imperceptible gradations to the deep, mysterious blue overhead. Here, a large star glimmered faintly. When West looked longer into the blueness, other smaller stars appeared.

The patron and patronne came out of the inn for their evening stroll. They were young people not a year married, and still prolonging their honeymoon. Every evening, when the day’s work was over, they strolled in the forest, the little wife holding the husband’s hand and leaning her brown head against his shoulder.

The chef, too, came forth to pace the woods in solitary dignity, while he forecast, perhaps, tomorrow’s successes; Léocadie sang over her plate-washing, unseen; and Armand, outside the stable door, whistled melodiously as he rubbed down the horses. Only Joseph reposed in honorable indolence on one of the terrace benches, with a napkin, his badge of office, folded lightly round his neck as a protection against the night air.

West remained smoking at the table where he had dined, and the sight of happy little Madame Cheuvel, whose happiness he had witnessed every night for a fortnight, sent his thoughts back now, for some occult reason, to his very first love affair, nearly twenty years before, in Dieppe.

 

Twenty years before West had been desperately in love. Oh, but so much in love that a pale reflection of the wonderful emotions he had then experienced still shone for him over all the grey intervening years. He had loved with the passion, with the sincerity of a boy, and for a whole month he had lived in daily proximity to the object of his adoration. Twice a day, for an hour at a time, his eyes had been permitted to rest upon her face, his ear had drunk in every tone of her voice, he had thrilled at the chance contact of her gown. And all that while he had not only never confessed his passion, but, boy-like, he had not even known how to make her acquaintance, he had never exchanged with her one single word.

It had happened during a certain summer when he and a friend, Jack Catterson, were spending a brief holiday in Dieppe. Catterson was then in his first situation as volunteer in a Paris business house, and France, in consequence, and things French was the only country, were the only things, favoured by his approval. He had written urging West to join him at Dieppe, and he had offered himself as a reliable guide to the delights of Continental life.

But the very first evening that West took his seat beside Catterson at the long table d’hôte of the cosmopolitan hotel, he discovered for himself all the delight he desired in the young, fresh face of a girl sitting a few places higher up on the other side of the table, [it was this trifling circumstance which eventually made all the difference between speaking to her or not] and it happened that as he seated himself and sent an interested glance over the unaccustomed scene, a pair of youthful, smiling eyes met his, and held them with the frank, with the sweet curiosity of a child.

He blushed tremendously, and, in his embarrassment, immediately looked away. Quite a long time elapsed before he recovered sufficient aplomb to steal a look across the table again, yet that first glance had already convinced him that his vis-a-vis was the most exquisitely lovely creature in the world. For he overlooked the fact that he counted only two and twenty years, and that most of those years had been spent in a sleepy, English cathedral town, where his acquaintance with exquisitely lovely creatures had been necessarily limited.

This girl’s face offered him all the charms of the unfamiliar, of the unformulated. It was packed with surprises for him. Never before had he seen eyes at all like hers, nor such hair, growing up from five distinct points round her forehead, nor such a mouth—a mouth of adorable contours which melted into other lines even more admirable when she talked, when she smiled.

He felt he could never tire of looking at her, and while dinner lasted he looked at her a great many times. Their eyes met, and met again, and once he almost believed that hers greeted him. He could not be certain of this, but the mere suspicion of it set his heart pounding furiously.

When she rose to accompany her party from the room—he turned eagerly to Catterson to secure his commendation of his taste, for Catterson, though his junior in years, was his senior in experiences. But his friend, fingering an upper lip on which the moustache as yet refused to grow, replied in the hypercritical spirit of a man who has lived ten months in Paris. “Oh yes. pretty enough! But I don’t care for the young girl myself. I like something more matured. You should see the vraie Parisienne. Let’s go over and take our coffee at the Casino.”

West welcomed the proposal, hoping there to meet again the particular young girl for whom already he cared a great deal; and he saw her on many succeeding evenings and days, but always surrounded by her family, always inaccessible. Of course, it was his fault, his folly. Of course an older man, a man of the world, would have known how to take or make his opportunity, would have been ready at table to render the little service, have been prompt to interpose the opportune word.

But West sate always tongue-tied, and just because he had wanted to speak so immensely, he had never been able to think of the right thing to say, or he thought of it only when the opportunity was past. Yet he stayed on at the hotel, after Catterson had left him, for the mere pleasure of sitting opposite to her twice a day. And a sort of silent acquaintanceship had grown up between them. She smiled at him openly, now, if any little amusing incident occured; if any amusing story were told she turned and gave him a sunshiny invitation to share in her amusement. But the acquaintance want no further than this, and with the close of the summer the girl and her party left Dieppe.

West could still recall the sensation of horrible blankness that assailed him, when, on entering the dining-room, he found her place occupied by a stranger, and learned through a sympathetic waiter that she was gone. It was long before life recovered its salt. Savour came back at last in the form of a hope that he should meet her again. And although so many years had elapsed and he had not met her, although he had long since put aside the expectation of doing so as mere boyish folly, nevertheless, he remembered the girl’s face with such vividness, that he would have recognised her instantly, anywhere, among a hundred thousand others.

 

The blue night had deepened and darkened. It was powdered now with white and lofty stars. From the open windows of the house shone a homelier yellow light. The little boys, victims to the nightly tyranny of bed, came down the road with their mother and vanished indoors. The steady radiance of the lamp in West’s own room reminded him presently of his unfinished book.

He, too, went in.

As he crossed the kitchen, the boy’s mother came out through the staircase door at the further end of it. She and West met in the centre of the room. He bowed, and in the instant of passing her decided that she was certainly a pretty looking woman, but older than, at a little distance, he had thought. Simultaneously his sub-conscious self took note that she made an almost imperceptible pause, that she looked at him with a surprising particularity.

But he was already half-way up the stairs before his conscious self noted it too, and then, impulsively, he turned back. She had looked at him as though she knew him. Did she know him? Had he ever seen her before? To decide the point he must immediately see her again.

He found her exchanging a few words with Chauvel at the door of the little office which opens off the kitchen, and it was now West’s turn to look at her searchingly, intently.

And looking at her thus he did truly detect something familiar in the set of her head, in the slope of her shoulders; something which recalled——why, good heavens! Conviction suddenly swept over him. She was Nini! Nini Roque, of whom by some strange coincidence he had been thinking ever since dinner. Coincidence? No; he realised it was no coincidence at all. It was, of course, her actual yet unsuspected proximity which had led his thoughts to the past.

All the same, the thing was amazing, incredible!

And, meanwhile, he had approached her with an air of British imperturbability, and was addressing her from the lips outwards.

“Pardon, madame, if I am mistaken, but did I not meet you years ago at Dieppe when you were Mademoiselle Roque?”

There was full recognition, and some reproach in her dark eyes.

“I recognised you at once, monsieur. But then you are not so very much changed. Men don’t change in the same way women do.”

“It’s not altogether because you are changed,” began West, who was seeking vainly for some traces of the girl in the matron before him, “but it’s the unexpectedness, the different circumstances. I don’t even know your name now that you are no longer Mademoiselle Nini?”

Her nickname, which had seemed to the boy sweet and unusual as its owner, had been learned through table-talk; her family name had been easily acquired through the sympathetic waiter.

“Oh, but I’m not married,” she said smiling. “I’m Nini Roque still.”

For a moment he was struck dumb. Then he saw the facts, and she saw his mistake, and laughed out. Her laugh, her voice were perhaps less changed than the rest.

“I am here with my brother and his wife. The children are my nephews. Don’t you remember my brother? Then you must let me make you known to each other now. For here he and my sister come. Louis, Angèle, I want to present to you an old friend of mine—a very old friend, Louis, of the long ago days in Dieppe.”

 

“At what hour did monsieur require the carriage to take him to the station?” Léocadie inquired next morning when she brought West his coffee.

But monsieur, already unpacking yesterday’s packed bags, sent a message down to the patronne that he had changed his mind and was going to stay.

For actually to have come across Nini Roque again, was a situation too interesting to be at once abandoned, although he was forced to acknowledge that it was a situation fraught now with no warmer emotion than that of interest and curiosity.

Fate plays us ironical turns, it must he confessed. West discovered that in finding Mademoiselle Nini he had, for the first time, completely lost her. Already the image which for twenty years had dwelt so freshly in his heart was fading away. He could no longer materialise it, and his young ideal, from which hitherto no other woman had been able to win him, Mademoiselle Roque herself was in a fair way to overthrow.

When he joined her party under the trees for breakfast—Madame Roque the evening before had invited him in the friendliest way to take his breakfast with them—when critically, dispassionately, in broad daylight he looked at the woman whom the boy had so worshipped, the man was completely disenchanted.

It was not that her maturity was without charm. On the contrary, she was of more than ordinary attractiveness. But she was not Nini, she did not resemble Nini in any particular. The girl had been slender, thin even, with a long slim throat, with a thin delicate hand. She had been timid, nervous; shy as West himself, always colouring faintly when he looked at her, when she spoke. The woman was largely built, finely developed, very self-possessed; such a woman as Catterson would have admired. But to West the change was a shattering of the last dream of youth. He passed his hand over his hair, felt how thin it was getting on top, and remembered that he was forty-two.

He was thankful for Madame Roque’s flow of conversation which covered his silences, which covered everything, indeed, in a shower of words glittering as they fell like rain in sunshine. They were mostly quite inconsequent words, but they were said in a charming way, and the speaker’s charming laugh supplied the points of punctuation. Her husband listened to her with parental indulgence, and appeared to treat her like a third child requiring rather more supervision than the other two. Her boys treated her like an elder sister, to whom they gave some affection, less respect, and no obedience at all.

These infants made uncalled-for excursions into the conversation, and sprang up from table a dozen times to chase Pasha and Carlos the dogs, or to caress Madame Carafon. Eugène upset the contents of the salt-cellar into his soup, Toto was detected swallowing the stones of his olives. Their mother laughed and called them “petite monstres!” but their father watched them with the haggard-eyed anxiety of a hen rearing a brood of ducklings. An intelligent and agreeable man of five-and-forty, Roque became a mere bundle of nervous terrors where his three children were concerned, and his educatory principles were epitomised in the reiterated admonition “Mais voyons, mes enfants, ne faites pas ça!

Whatsoever Toto, Eugène, and Angèle imagined unto themselves to do, and they imagined unto themselves sixty different diversions in an hour, Roque saw danger in it, and commanded them, requested them, entreated them to desist.

His methods of training were well exemplified later, when it was proposed that the whole party should walk down to La Bouille, the little opera-bouffe village, tucked in between the foot of the cliffs and the flowing Seine.

The proposal came from Madame Roque, she belonging to that class of person who can never be happy anywhere, doing anything, without wishing to be somewhere else, doing something different.

Roque, who was a real boulvardier, to whom, away from Paris, one place appeared as detestable as another; who only came to the country at all for the sake of the children, loudly confessing that he found no possible pleasure in it; Roque would have infinitely preferred to pass the entire afternoon in reposeful chat under the trees. But as his wife declared that in that case she would go without him, as the boys vociferously insisted that they also would go, he gave in observing to West, with a groan, that he supposed his sufferings would be less in accompanying them than in remaining behind to speculate on all the possible accidents which might befall them deprived of his care. Yet if his sufferings were less than they might have been, he was made to suffer a good deal all the same.

Two roads lead down from the forest to La Bouille. One is a broad carriage-road zig-zagging along the cliff-side, the other is a narrow lane plunging down almost perpendicularly from the cliff-top to its base. Madame desired to go by this path. Roque was horrified at the idea. It was far too steep, she would twist her ancle, the children would be tempted to run, they would break their necks. Madame, however, wilfully set off.

“Do you hear me, Angèle? I absolutely forbid you to go!” Roque shouted, and seized her arm with marital roughness; but when she merely laughed, shook herself free, and set off again:—“Will you please, Angèle, for my sake not go?” he implored her, in the small voice of persuasion. Madame laughed, but had the caprice to comply.

The carriage road leans to the left, turns, sweeps to the right, and then turns again; then, by a long and gradual descent, it finally reaches the village. Above the inner edge of the road towers the steep, white cliff; along the outer edge is a ditch, a bank, and a quickset hedge.

Up this bank dashed Eugène with a war-whoop. After him dashed Toto. And the pair instantly became Red–Indian braves following the trail.

Beads of perspiration stood on Roque’s forehead. “Mais voyons, mes enfants, ne faites pas ca!” he called to them. “My dear, look at the children! If they don’t fall into the ditch they are sure to go right through the hedge and get their skulls smashed in the valley below. Eugène! Toto! come down immediately!”

But the Braves only ran the faster, and whooped the louder, and their mother only laughed.

A thick white dust filled the road; the sun was reflected down upon it from the cliffs’ surface with redoubled heat. It occurred to Madame Angèle that walking would be pleasanter in the bottom of the grassy ditch. Roque broke off an interesting dissertation on the peculiar vague melancholy of the Norman character to assure his wife that the grass was damp, that she would certainly catch cold, that she would probably be laid up with rheumatism or neuralgia. He ordered her to come out; he begged her to come out; he besought her to come out, with tears in his voice. He threatened that if she persisted in disobeying him he should turn round and go home. He took a dozen homeward steps, faced about, came back, lifted her bodily out of the ditch, and kept her, for ten minutes, by force, to his side.

West found the spectacle of Roque’s parental anxieties in conflict with his children’s whims diverting, although he fancied a little of it would suffice him for a great while. It made conversation impossible, and silence unprofitable. You could neither indulge in your own thoughts, nor enjoy the neighbours’ opinions.

But he did not fail to admire the self-restraint of Mademoiselle Nini, the judicious manner in which she did not put her finger between the bark and the tree. For she was constantly appealed to by all; by her brother, by Angèle, by the boys; and she maintained an attitude of smiling neutrality, to which the disputants were either accustomed, or which, in the heat of the moment, they overlooked.

He had no opportunity for personal talk with her, but as he watched her, as he listened to her imparting flower-lore to the children—she had lured them back to the broad path of civilisation by means of an exciting legend concerning purple scabious and the devil—the last trace of the Nini he had known, vanished completely. This woman was nominally the Nini Roque of Dieppe; in reality she was a stranger whose acquaintance he had still to make.

When La Bouille was reached, our party found the village celebrating the feast-day of its patron saint, and the little triangular place looked more like a scene from opera-bouffe than usual. For in addition to its little cafés with their terraces screened off by oleanders set in tubs; in addition to its little church that stands all day long with open doors, and dips its feet, so to speak, in the waters of the river; in addition to its tall, white-washed, grey-shuttered houses; it was, today, cluttered up with every kind of stall and booth, in which wooden horses, tight-rope dancing, and shooting at the mark, offered evergreen attractions.

Fishermen and sailor folk, pilots up from Le Havre, citizens down from Rouen, cyclists with arm thrust through arm of quaint little cyclists—ladies clothed in the courageous garments of the Boul’Miche, tourists, gypsies, curés, peasants, children, all pressed to and fro, sucked peppermints, besieged the restaurants, and lavished coppers and fifty-centime pieces with a reckless prodigality. Every now and then a small bomb was exploded on the quay, and a puff of white smoke was followed by an ear-shattering noise.

Eugène became so enamoured of “L’homard, la sale bête,” given through the phonograph, that he insisted on going through the whole repertory, for the pleasure of hearing that masterpiece over again. Every biped and quadruped subsequently met with was discovered by him to have du poil aux pattes, to his intense histrionic disgust. Toto, being like his father somewhat porté sur la bouche, and foreseeing the needs of certain robber chiefs who were to dwell in the woods round the inn, purchased such quantities of gilt gingerbread that the pockets of the entire party, including West’s, were requisitioned to assist him in storing it.

Roque uttered a sigh of relief when he saw his three children safely installed at the Café de la Paix, on the arboured terrace overlooking the river.

Then began one of those delightful half-hours you only get in France, a half-hour refreshed by lager beer, stimulated by cigarettes, filled with gaiety from the infectious gaiety of a French crowd. The atmosphere was vibrant with voices and laughter and the chinking of glasses. Only the river was silent as it flowed down in great sweeps through the flat green pastures on the right, to swirl away out of sight under the steep cliffs on the left-hand side beyond La Bouille. A pleasure-boat with a ruddy sail and a deep-dropped ruddy reflection tacked across, and the reflection was presently shaken from continuity to mere splashes of crimson, as a steamer, the Abeille, arrived from Rouen, driving the water out behind it in long waves, which ultimately lapped against either bank. It brought another couple of hundred or so excursionists, who melted as imperceptibly into the crowd on the quay, as a drop of water loses itself in a pailful.

But such pleasant half-hours end only too soon. West was just lighting his third cigarette when Madame Roque discovered that she had the sun in her eyes, and that they had come to the wrong restaurant. All the while she had intended to patronise the Café des Etrangers across the way. Couldn’t they go there now? The “grenadine” she had taken didn’t amuse her at all, and she wanted a café à la crême.

“At this hour of the afternoon? Angèle, you are out of your senses!” cried her husband, and in spite of her insistence, he would not hear of gratifying a whim so calculated to spoil her appetite and to upset her digestion. The discussion which his unexpected firmness produced, lasted until the whole party were well out of the village, and a fresh point for dispute had presented itself.

Certainly she would go back to the inn by the petit raidillon. Oh, but on that she was determined! It was much shorter than the carriage-road, and infinitely more agreeable. No, it would not give her palpitation of the heart at all. Louis could go the long way by himself if he pleased. She would accept the escort of Monsieur.

She turned to West with conversational fervour, and he listened, abstractedly, while his eyes rested on the figure of Nini, who, with a boy on either side of her, walked on ahead. One long arm encircled Eugène’s neck and leaned lightly on his shoulders. Toto’s blunt fingers were hooked into her waist-band. He swung his sailor—hat by the elastic, showing his dun~coloured hair shaven so close to his bullet head as to resemble the nap of velvet. His aunt occasionally passed her fingers over it. Her cotton gown of broad lilac and white stripes made a cool and pleasing patch of light amidst the sombre greenness of the ascent.

Madame Roque, guessing perhaps the object of West’s reflections, interrupted her flow of talk to say approvingly: “Nini is so fond of the boys, I’m sure if she had children of her own she would not care for them half as much as she does for mine. But then she is not the sort of woman ever to have children, is she? Some women are born to be just aunts and nothing else. Nini is one of those. I can’t imagine her a wife, can you? And it would be dreadful now for the money to go out of the family. I should feel the poor boys were very hardly used, but she herself boasts of having put the last pin in the cap of Saint Catherine, so we may consider ourselves safe. Though to be sure, only last year one of Louis’ colleagues made her a proposal. So uncalled for, wasn’t it, and I told Louis he never ought to have invited him to the house, for you know my husband is in the ministry, and his office is at the Luxembourg. That’s why we live in the Rue de Commailles, although I loathe that side of the river, and of course before my marriage I had always lived in the Avenue de la Grande Armée, so much airier and brighter, isn’t it? Now we’re on the third floor, number two, between the street and the cour, and I tell you because you must come and see us the next time you are in Paris. My day is Monday, five to seven, and you will nearly always find Nini with us, for she has a little flat just at the top of our street in the Rue du Bac, although having no ties she might live anywhere, and even if we hadn’t such excellent omnibus services, she is very well off and could always afford a carriage, and so constantly drop in. Oh, la, la!” she suddenly broke off, “what on earth are the children doing now? There is my husband, as usual, forbidding them to do it.”

Roque, naturally, had not gone by the road. He could not suffer his three children to be even a moment out of his sight. He passed to and fro between the rear-guard and the van, a poor, restless, tormented, and tormenting spirit. On his lips hung in perpetual prayer, that Toto should put on his hat lest he should catch a sun-stroke, that Angèle should observe the stones in her path lest she should strike her foot against them.

At this moment, he, his sister, and the boys formed a circle round some object on the ground, and his agitated “Mais voyons, ne fais pas ca, Eugène!” had called forth his wife’s remark.

For Eugène, armed with a long twig, was tickling a small snake of a livid, brownish-green, which lay immobile on the ground.

“It’s only a slow-worm, papa, and it’s dead anyhow. See, it doesn’t move the least bit!” said he, poking at it again.

West recognised the sluggish impudence of the adder, that never troubles to get out of your path, but, confident in his power for evil, expects you to get out of his.

“Keep clear, please!” he begged them, swung up his stick and brought it down on the enemy’s flat little head. The women sprang back, and the boys shrieked and danced in ecstacy, as the creature, all life and movement now, twisted violently this way and that in its rage. But a couple of further blows broke its spine, and West tossed the remains into the hedge.

“That’s not a slow worm,” he told the boys, “but a real adder, and of a very poisonous species, too. It’s the second one I’ve found about.”

 

Thanks to this information, Roque’s already loosened nerves were completely shattered. He spread himself in speculations as to what would have happened had Angèle, who never looked where she was going, trodden upon the snake, and been stung. Cut off from all efficient aid, with only a village doctor in La Bouille, and Rouen two hours away, what could they have done? He discovered that his three children were walking about in low shoes. He declared this to be the height of criminal folly. He announced his intention of taking them into Rouen next day to have them fitted with stout boots. He expressed doubts as to the prudence of dining out of doors, and his doubts appeared justified when in the middle of dinner Toto sprang from his chair with a hideous yell, declaring that a viper had run up his leg. When it was proved that he knew it to be nothing more venomous than Carafon’s tail brushing against his bare calf, Roque gave his small son a petulant box on the ear. The blow was perfunctory, the kisses that followed were whole-hearted and warm. Toto thoroughly enjoyed the one and the others, returning to his seat well satisfied with the sensation he had caused.

Eugène now jumped to his feet gripping his father’s stick. “Bah!” cried he vaingloriously, “if I were to see a viper, I’d knock his head off at one blow just as M’sieu Vest did!” He flourished the stick, and succeeded in knocking a glass off the table and breaking it.

Roque considered the children were suffering from over-excitement. He prescribed a sedative of orange-flower tisane and recommended their mother to put them to bed.

In place of this their mother suggested a walk through the woods. The evening was superb.

Roque was appalled at the idea. Did Angèle wish to die herself, or to see the children die of viper-poisoning?

“But we could keep to the open glade, Louis?”

The open glade, Roque affirmed, was precisely the spot for vipers to congregate. Was not the one which they had found today in the open road? Vipers love warmth, and when with sundown the warmth begins to evaporate from the earth, they leave their hiding-places to seek the open ground where the sunshine has lain the longest. The glade, at this hour, was no doubt pullulating with vipers. They had far better finish the evening indoors, or—this suggestion being received with derision—if they must walk, they would walk a short distance along the high road. They would repeat the walk they had taken last night. That was much the safest and pleasantest thing they could do.

The salient point of Madame Roque’s character was its uncertainty. When you had every reason to anticipate a long and stormy opposition, she suddenly met your wishes with a sweetness and completeness that was perfectly paralysing.

Now she merely shrugged her shoulders, wrinkled up her nose, and threw out her hands in an appeal to heaven and to her sister-in-law.

“What is going to become of me,” she asked the latter, “now that Louis has added vipers to his already formidable list of fears—to dogs, tramps, precipices, and wet feet? We might as well return to Paris at once——”

Her speech was cut in two by a pious ejaculation from Roque. “Bon Dieu, if that were possible!”

“But you, Nini, who have no tyrant to thwart your innocent pleasures at every turn, you go and walk to the end of the glade with Monsieur Vest, and I’ll make Louis pay you une bonne piece de cent sous for every viper you see.”

 

In spite, however, of so considerable a bribe, West and his companion did not go viper-hunting immediately, for it was Mademoiselle Nini’s pleasure that to pay her evening visit to the memorial monument of the soldiers who fell in 1871. This monument stands close behind the inn, the centre of a square, low-walled enclosure, with gates upon the high road; it consists of the bronze figure of a young foot-soldier leaning upon his rifle, and gazing over to where the sweeps of shining river flow down to him from the Paris which he will never see again. Carved upon the pedestal are the names of the French lads of this regiment or of that, whose mutilated bodies were buried together at this spot.

West, holding his hat in his hand, stood by Nini’s side, while she read down the list.

“You see, they‘re all plebeian names,” she commented. “They were all mere little pious-pious, pathetic little peasant figures of the line. But they are not forgotten.”

Hung on the base of the monument, round the walls of the enclosure, were immense wreaths of immortelles, and shields and trophies of coloured beads worked upon wire. Every trophy and every wreath here an inscription naming the particular patriotic league or other source from whence it came, and the date. Some of these dates were of the current year.

“No; they will be remembered, no doubt, until the next war,” said West, “and meantime the glass-bead-atrocity-monger flourishes.”

“Oh, they‘re not beautiful,” she admitted, “but what would you have? One must be practical, and heads keep clean, and stand exposure better than anything else.”

A sight beautiful as it was evanescent was that which met their eyes as they came out of the enclosure, and turned back to the inn. Straight before them stretched the road to Molineaux, a road all amber light and ultramarine shadow in the daytime, now become one grey uniformity in the dusk. The trees on either side massed themselves together in a soft, mysterious darkness, drew away with the receding road, seemed to diminish in height, to coalesce at last into a point in the obscure distance, thus forming an immense low-toned V upon the evening sky. But the sky which filled in this V, which mounted to marvellous heights above it, was of the most unutterable blue; a blue which pulsated up from deep violet-blue at the V’s base, to an ethereal cerulean blue above the tops of the foremost trees. And as though this were not enchantment enough for the seeing eye, arching over the road from side to side, lacing, as it were the tree-tops together, floated filmy ribbons of cloud of the intensest, the purest rose.

“Heavens! How beautiful, how beautiful!” cried Nini. “It is beautiful to the point of pain.”

They walked a little way down the road, entering the forest by a path on the right.

West made a laughing allusion to Roque’s fears.

“Louis never used to be nervous,” she said apologetically. “It’s only since his marriage that he has developed nerves. As a young man he didn’t know their meaning. When I remember the things which he and I did at Dieppe! The crazy boats we sailed in, the breakneck cliffs we climbed, our long, solitary rambles! Why, I know the country from Ste. Marguerite to Pay as well as I know my pocket.”

West was glad of her reference to Dieppe. He wanted to talk with her of those days, and hitherto he had found no chance for intimate conversation. He had begun to wonder whether family claims would not keep her as far from him in the present as they had done in the past, and he blessed the episode of the viper and Roque’s fears.

“We’ve all changed since the days at Dieppe,” he began, and she looked at him with a smile.

“Yes, indeed! You found me quite unrecognisable!”

“Ah, that is because of the way you do your hair. You used to wear it turned back. I remember that it grew from five distinct points round your forehead, which pleased me very much.”

“And now I wear it over my ears in Caudeaux, a fashion which, at my age, I ought perhaps to know better than to follow, for it adds ten years to the faces of even the very young. But you know what slaves we are to fashion in Paris.”

The evening touched that most exquisite moment of conflicting claims, when the dying fires of sunset still smoulder in the western sky, while the moon rises in the cool east, and night stands hesitating where to find a foothold. Timidly she blurrs an outline here, steals away a colour there, until the distance is faint with mystery, and the trees close at hand have lost every vestige of green. They turn grey, violet, purple, they become every ineffable colour but green.

The curious note of the night-jar travelled across the silence, and West asked for the bird’s name in French, and added it to his repertory with satisfaction. But this was only a momentary interlude. When they walked on he returned to the subject which engrossed his thoughts.

“I wonder,” said he, “if you ever guessed how desperately I desired to make your acquaintance at Dieppe? I don’t think I ever desired anything quite so much in my life, and the very intensity of the desire deprived me of the means of fulfilling it.”

“You never, certainly, took a step towards its fulfilment! To that, at least, I can swear.”

“You laugh? You don’t believe me? But it’s true, nevertheless. I was hopelessly shy. You were with your own people, you were always surrounded by friends. Ah, that social body-guard which always encompassed you! I could easier have faced an army than have made you any advances beneath its observing eyes. I was very miserable. If only something had occurred! I wasted hours in day-dreaming of the chances which might occur. The hotel, for instance, should take fire, and I rush to your room and save you single-handed; when bathing, a wave should carry you out of your depth, and I swim to your assistance; when crossing the Grande Rue a runaway horse should menace you, and I arrive on the scene just in time to stop him.”

“Yet, unfortunately, the hotel people were careful, and I only bathed in calm weather, and there were no runaway horses that year in Dieppe. Oh, you had no luck!”

“I had the luck of sitting opposite to you twice a day, of hearing you speak, of seeing you smile. And although I described myself just now as being very miserable, I was really very happy too. For—the truth shall get itself spoken at last—I was tremendously in love with you, mademoiselle!”

Though he was not in love now—and how could he be since Nini no longer existed?—he was always deeply interested in the boy who had loved her. It was a pleasure to talk to Nini’s successor about that boy, to discover how far, if at all, his burning, inarticulate passion had been divined by her.

“‘In love,’” she repeated, musingly. “I like that English phrase, it’s so descriptive.”

“And it’s so true. You really are ‘in’ love, for the time being, you’re immersed in it, you’re lost in it. You become unconscious of time and space; external circumstances have no meaning for you. You fancy yourself very miserable, and you are really happier than at any other moment of your career.”

“Go on!” encouraged Mademoiselle Nini. “Tell me some more concerning this paradoxical passion. How many times have you experienced it since?”

“You can only be in love once, my dear lady, and that’s just the trouble of it. For although it’s a morbid condition of mind, it is one which you would be very glad to set up again. But once you are inoculated with the sweet poison, you become proof against the virus of any subsequent attack.”

“Which sounds very scientific, and very unsatisfactory,” smiled his companion. “However, if you have no more love-stories to tell me, tell me some plain, prosaic facts. How do you live in that terrible, dark, foggy London of yours? How do you amuse yourself? What do you do?”

“Oh, London isn’t always foggy and dark. Occasionally, in June and July we see the sun for an hour or two. But it’s always dull, and we don’t amuse ourselves at all. We work, however, as though our lives depended on it, as indeed, in most cases, they do. Let me see—I get up every morning at eight, and start for business at nine, and when I don’t dine by myself at a restaurant, I dine by myself at home. I have most of Saturday and all Sunday to loaf in, and six weeks’ holiday out of the fifty-two. Every year finds me more vieux garçon than the last.”

“I wonder why you have not married?” she asked him. “Are not Englishwomen very charming?”

He gave her the true word, jestingly. “Don’t you know it’s owing to you? I could never get your face out of my mind, and I used my memory of it as a standard of comparison. Whenever I thought of a woman as a possible wife I recognised that she was not you, and I thought of her no longer. It sounds incredible, I’m sure. I can imagine how amazing it must seem to you when I look back and see myself as you saw me, a tongue-tied, awkward, blushing hobbledehoy who sat bouche bée, and hadn’t the wit to make himself agreeable.”

They had been walking along the broad grassy glade, which traverses the forest, and had reached the end of the level portion, and the bill’s brow. From this point the path steps precipitously down, carrying the forest with it to the valley below, crosses the railway line, and again carrying the forest, climbs the heights beyond, where its course is marked by a dark line or furrow among the closely-serried tree-tops.

These far-away tree-tops were now saturated with moonlight, and when West and his companion turned back again they met the risen moon face to face. The long vistaed avenue stretching before them was filled with white light, the ground, the glade appeared pale and lucent as water. A dark little blob, lying mid-path some distance off, arose, resolved itself into some small quadruped, and advanced lightly and steadily towards them. At first, from its colour, West took it to be a cat, then, during a second, for some Liliputian hog; all at once he saw the long ears and mild eyes of a hare. At the same instant it saw him, stood still, then turned and flashed away among the trees. Again the note of the night-jar was heard, this time farther off. It travelled along the still air like the whirr of a fairy-spinning-wheel. West listened to it while waiting for Nini to speak.

Then—“You certainly used to blush a great deal!” she agreed. “But I found that so delightful in you. I remember the first evening you came to our hotel just as though it were yesterday. I see a very tall, a very fair young man, with eyes like bits of blue china. Not the most poetical of similes, perhaps, but that is what they suggested to me, they were so excessively blue. You were the first Englishman I had ever met, and I was quite as much interested in you as you say you were in me. I, too. wove day-long romances of which you were the subject, but I was the heroine; my heroism ranging from lending you a handkerchief during an attack of nose-bleeding to nursing you triumphantly through six weeks of brain-fever.

She stopped to laugh out at herself and at him. “How charming youth is, but how egotistical, how self-engrossed! That its own virtues may have the opportunity to shine, it will calmly devote its neighbour to any amount of inconvenience and pain. I never asked myself how you would like to be condemned to a long illness. All I thought of was the pleasure of waiting upon you, and your astonishment and gratitude when you should learn who had been your nurse. But is it not amusing to think that there we sat facing one another during a whole month, each weaving similar rosy fancies, and yet never exchanging a word?”

“You are serious?” he asked her, coming to a standstill. “You really mean that you felt like that?”

“Oh, you may believe me!” she answered serenely, “I was very much in love with you too.”

Through this serenity her avowal of earlier sentiments seemed deprived of all actuality, of any possible connection with the present. But West was preoccupied with the past.

It was true, then, that Nini, the exquisite young girl of his dreams, had cared for him, just as he, the boy, had cared for her. Oh, if he could but have known it, if he could but have dared to imagine such a thing, he would have easily found the courage to speak. But such are Time’s revenges; he gives you all you ask for, but he gives it too late. Knowledge came to West too late, for Nini was gone irretrievably, the boy existed no more.

Nini was gone.

He stopped again, looked earnestly at his companion and certified the fact for the hundredth time that the girl was gone. But a beautiful woman lived in her place, a woman more beautiful, more interesting, more congenial to the man than any young girl could be.

The impetuous word, the decisive word rushed to his lips-but it did not, after all, at that moment, get itself spoken.

“Well, well, children!” cried the gay voice of Madame Roque, as she advanced to meet them, her head and shoulders wrapped up in a fleecy shawl, her long row of tiny, even teeth, flashing out on them in the friendliest smile. “How many vipers did you see, and how many five franc pieces does Louis owe you?”

West so far overcame his insular timidity as to take the little lady’s hand in his, and kiss it courteously.

“It is I, madame, who am in debt to you,” he said, turning to smile at Nini, “and I owe you more than I can hope ever to repay.”

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