It was quite useless to expostulate when that obstinate little Sonia, with a Russian name and Russian caprices, had said: “I choose to do it.” She was so delicate and pretty also, with her slightly turned-up nose, and her rosy and childish cheeks, while every female perversity was reflected in the depths of her strange eyes, which were the color of the sea on a stormy evening. Yes, she was very charming, very fantastic, and above all, so Russian, so deliciously and imperiously Russian, and all the more Russian, as she came from Montmarte, and in spite of this, not one of her seven lovers who composed her usual menagerie had laughed when their enslaver said one day:
“You know my feudal castle at Pludun–Herlouët, near Saint Jacut-dela-Mer, which I bought two years ago, and in which I have not yet set foot? Very well, then! The day after tomorrow, which is the first of May, we will have a house-warming there.”
The seven had not asked for any further explanation, but had accompanied little Sonia, and were now ready to sit down to dinner under her presidency in the dining-room of the old castle, which was situated ten hours from Paris. They had arrived there that morning; they were going to have dinner and supper together, and start off again at daybreak next morning; such were Sonia’s orders, and nobody had made the slightest objection.
Two of her admirers, however, who were not yet used to her sudden whims, had felt some surprise, which was quickly checked by expressions of enthusiastic pleasure on the part of the others.
“What a delightful, original idea! Nobody else would have thought of such things! Positively, nobody else. Oh! these Russians!” But those who had known her for some time, and who had been consequently educated not to be surprised at anything, found it all quite natural.
It was half-past six in the evening, and the gentlemen were going to dress. Sonia had made up her mind to keep on her morning-gown, or if she dressed, she would do so later. Just then she was not inclined to move out of her great rocking-chair, from which she could see the sun setting over the sea. The sight always delighted her very much. It might have been taken for a large red billiard ball, rebounding from the green cloth. How funny it was! And how lucky that she was all alone to look at it, for those seven would not have understood it at all! Those men never have any soul, have they?
Certainly, the sunset was strange at first, but at length it made her sad, and just now Sonia’s heart felt almost heavy, though the very sadness was sweet. She was congratulating herself more than ever on being alone, so as to enjoy that languor, which was almost like a gentle dream, when, in perfect harmony with that melancholy and sweet sensation, a voice rose from the road, which was overhung by the terrace; a tremulous, but fresh and pure voice sang the following words to a slow melody:
“Walking in Paris,
Having my drink,
A friend of mine whispered:
What do you think?
If love makes you thirsty,
Then wine makes you lusty.”
The sound died away, as the singer continued on his way, and Sonia was afraid that she should not hear the rest; it was really terrible; so she jumped out of the rocking-chair, ran to the balustrade of terrace, and leaning over it, she called out: “Sing it again! I insist on it. The song, the whole song!”
On hearing this, the singer looked round and then came back, without hurrying, however, and as if he were prompted by curiosity, rather than by any desire to comply with her order, and holding his hand over his eyes, he looked at Sonia attentively, who, on her part, had plenty of time to look closely at him.
He was an old man of about sixty-five, and his rags and the wallet over his shoulder denoted a beggar, but Sonia immediately noticed that there was a certain amount of affectation in his wretchedness. His hair and beard were not shaggy and ragged, like such men usually wear them, and evidently he had his hair cut occasionally, and he had a fine, and even distinguished face, as Sonia said to herself. But she did not pay much attention to that, as for some time she had noticed that old men at the seaside nearly all looked like gentlemen.
When he got to the foot of the terrace, the beggar stopped, and wagged his head and said: “Pretty! The little woman is very pretty!” But he did not obey Sonia’s order, who repeated it, almost angrily this time, beating a violent tattoo on the stone-work. “The song, the whole song!”
He did not seem to hear, but stood there gaping, with a vacant smile on his face, and as his head was rather inclined towards his left shoulder, a thin stream of saliva trickled from his lips onto his beard, and his looks became more and more ardent. “How stupid I am!” Sonia suddenly thought. “Of course he is waiting for something.” She felt in her pocket, in which she always carried some gold by way of half-pence, took out a twenty-franc piece and threw it down to the old man. He, however, did not take any notice of it, but continued looking at her ecstatically, and was only roused from his state of bliss by receiving a handful of gravel which she threw at him, right in his face.
“Do sing!” she exclaimed. “You must; I will have it; I have paid you.” And then, still smiling, he picked up the napoleon and threw it back onto the terrace, and then he said proudly, though in a very gentle voice: “I do not ask for charity, little lady; but if it gives you pleasure, I will sing you the whole song, the whole of it, as often as you please.” And he began the song again, in his tremulous voice, which was more tremulous than it had been before, as if he were much touched.
Sonia was overcome, and without knowing was moved into tears; delighted because the man had spoken to her so familiarly, and rather ashamed at having treated him as a beggar; and now her whole being was carried away by the slow rhythm of the melody, which related an old love story, and when he had done he again looked at her with a smile, and as she was crying, he said to her: “I dare say you have a beautiful horse, or a little dog that you are very fond of, which is ill. Take me to it, and I will cure it: I understand it thoroughly. I will do it gratis, because you are so pretty.”
She could not help laughing. “You must not laugh,” he said. “What are you laughing at? Because I am poor? But I am not, for I had work yesterday, and again today. I have a bag full. See, look here!” And from his belt he drew a leather purse in which coppers rattled. He poured them out into the palm of his hand, and said merrily: “You see, little one, I have a purse. Forty-seven sous; forty-seven!” “So you will not take my napoleon?” Sonia said. “Certainly not,” he replied. “I do not want it; and then, I tell you again, I will not accept alms. So you do not know me?” “No, I do not.” “Very well, ask anyone in the neighborhood. Everybody will tell you that the Marquis does not live on charity.”
The Marquis! At that name she suddenly remembered that two years ago she had heard his story. It was at the time that she bought the property, and the vendor had mentioned the Marquis as one of the curiosities of the soil. He was said to be half silly, at any rate an original, almost in his dotage, living by any lucky bits that he could make as horse-coper and veterinary. The peasants gave him a little work, as they feared that he might throw spells over anyone who refused to employ him. They also respected him on account of his former wealth and of his title, for he had been rich, very rich, and they said that he really was a marquis, and it was said that he had ruined himself in Paris by speculating. The reason, of course, was women!
At that moment the dinner bell began to ring, and a wild idea entered Sonia’s head. She ran to the little door that opened onto the terrace, overtook the musician, and with a ceremonious bow she said to him: “Will you give me the pleasure and the honor of dining with me, Marquis?”
The old man left off smiling and grew serious; he put his hand to his forehead, as if to bring old recollections back, and then with a very formal, old-fashioned bow, he said: “With pleasure, my dear.” And letting his wallet drop, he offered Sonia his arm.
When she introduced this new guest to them, all the seven, even to the best drilled, started. “I see what disturbs you,” she said. “It is his dress. Well! It really leaves much to be desired. But wait a moment; that can soon be arranged.”
She rang for her lady’s maid and whispered something to her, and then she said: “Marquis, your bath is ready in your dressing-room. If you will follow Sabina, she will show you to it. These gentlemen and I will wait dinner for you.” And as soon as he had gone out, she said to the youngest there: “And now, Ernest, go upstairs and undress; I will allow you to dine in your morning coat, and you will give your dress coat and the rest to Sabina, for the Marquis.”
Ernest was delighted at having to play a part in the piece, and the six others clapped their hands. “Nobody else could think of such things; nobody, nobody!”
Half an hour later they were sitting at dinner, the Marquis in a dress coat on Sonia’s left, and it was a great deception for the seven. They had reckoned on having some fun with him, and especially Ernest, who set up as a wit, had intended to draw him. But at the first attempt of this sort, Sonia had given him a look which they all understood, and dinner began very ceremoniously for the seven, but merrily and without restraint between Sonia and the old man.
They cut very long faces, those seven, but inwardly, if one can say so, for of course they could not dream of showing how put out they were, and those inward long faces grew longer still when Sonia said to the old fellow, quite suddenly: “I say, how stupid these gentlemen are! Suppose we leave them to themselves?”
The Marquis rose, offered her his arm again, and said: “Where shall we go to?” But Sonia’s only reply was to sing the couplet of that song which she had remembered:
“For three years I passed
The nights with my love,
In a beautiful bed
In a splendid alcove.
Though wine makes me sleepy,
Yet love keeps me frisky.”
And the seven, who were altogether dumbfounded this time, and who could not conceal their vexation, saw the couple disappear out of the door which led to Sonia’s apartments. “Hum!” Ernest ventured to say, “this is really rather strong!” “Yes,” the eldest of the menagerie replied. “It certainly is rather strong, but it will do! You know, there is nobody like her for thinking of such things!”
The next morning, the château bell woke them up at six o’clock, when they had agreed to return to Paris, and the seven men asked each other whether they should go and wish Sonia good-morning, as usual, before she was out of her room. Ernest hesitated more than any of them about it, and it was not until Sabina, her maid, came and told them that her mistress insisted upon it, that they could make up their minds to do so, and they were surprised to find Sonia in bed by herself.
“Well!” Ernest asked boldly, “and what about the Marquis?” “He left very early,” Sonia replied. “A queer sort of marquis, I must say!” Ernest observed contemptuously, and growing bolder. “Why, I should like to know?” Sonia replied, drawing herself up. “The man has his own habits, I suppose!” “Do you know, Madame,” Sabina observed, “that he came back half an hour after he left?” “Ah!” Sonia said, getting up and walking about the room. “He came back? What did he want, I wonder?” “He did not say, Madame. He merely went upstairs to see you. He was dressed in his old clothes again.”
And suddenly Sonia uttered a loud cry, and clapped her hands, and the seven came round to see what had caused her emotion. “Look here! Just look here!” she cried. “Do look on the mantel-piece! It is really charming! Do look!”
And with a smiling, and yet somewhat melancholy expression in her eyes, with a tender look which they could not understand, she showed them a small bunch of wild flowers, by the side of a heap of half-pennies. Mechanically she took them up and counted them, and then began to cry.
There were forty-seven of them.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53