Adrian Urmand had been three days gone from Granpere before Michel Voss found a fitting opportunity for talking to his niece. It was not a matter, as he thought, in which there was need for any great hurry, but there was need for much consideration. Once again he spoke on the subject to his wife.
‘If she’s thinking about George, she has kept it very much to herself,’ he remarked.
‘Girls do keep it to themselves,’ said Madame Voss.
‘I’m not so sure of that. They generally show it somehow. Marie never looks lovelorn. I don’t believe a bit of it; and as for him, all the time he has been away he has never so much as sent a word of a message to one of us.’
‘He sent his love to you, when I saw him, quite dutifully,’ said Madame Voss.
‘Why don’t he come and see us if he cares for us? It isn’t of him that Marie is thinking.’
‘It isn’t of anybody else then,’ said Madame Voss. ‘I never see her speak a word to any of the young men, nor one of them ever speaking a word to her.’
Pondering over all this, Michel Voss resolved that he would have it all out with his niece on the following Sunday.
On the Sunday he engaged Marie to start with him after dinner to the place on the hillside where they were cutting wood. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon, in that pleasantest of all months in the year, when the sun is not too hot, and the air is fresh and balmy, and one is still able to linger abroad, loitering either in or out of the shade, when the midges cease to bite, and the sun no longer scorches and glares; but the sweet vestiges of summer remain, and everything without doors is pleasant and friendly, and there is the gentle unrecognised regret for the departing year, the unconscious feeling that its glory is going from us, to add the inner charm of a soft melancholy to the outer luxury of the atmosphere. I doubt whether Michel Voss had ever realised the fact that September is the kindliest of all the months, but he felt it, and enjoyed the leisure of his Sunday afternoon when he could get his niece to take a stretch with him on the mountain-side. On these occasions Madame Voss was left at home with M. le Cure, who liked to linger over his little cup of coffee. Madame Voss, indeed, seldom cared to walk very far from the door of her own house; and on Sundays to go to the church and back again was certainly sufficient exercise.
Michel Voss said no word about Adrian Urmand as they were ascending the hill. He was too wise for that. He could not have given effect to his experience with sufficient eloquence had he attempted the task while the burden of the rising ground was upon his lungs and chest. They turned into a saw-mill as they went up, and counted the scantlings of timber that had been cut; and Michel looked at the cradle to see that it worked well, and to the wheels to see that they were in good order, and observed that the channel for the water required repairs, and said a word as to the injury that had come to him because George had left him. ‘Perhaps he may come back soon,’ said Marie. To this he made no answer, but continued his path up the mountain-side. ‘There will be plenty of feed for the cows this autumn,’ said Marie Bromar. ‘That is a great comfort.’
‘Plenty,’ said Michel; ‘plenty.’ But Marie knew from the tone of his voice that he was not thinking about the grass, and so she held her peace. But the want or plenty of the pasture was generally a subject of the greatest interest to the people of Granpere at that special time of the year, and one on which Michel Voss was ever ready to speak. Marie therefore knew that there was something on her uncle’s mind. Nevertheless he inspected the timber that was cut, and made some remarks about the work of the men. They were not so careful in barking the logs as they used to be, and upon the whole he thought that the wood itself was of a worse quality. What is there that we do not find to be deteriorating around us when we consider the things in detail, though we are willing enough to admit a general improvement? ‘Yes,’ said he, in answer to some remarks from Marie, ‘we must take it, no doubt, as God gives it to us, but we need not spoil it in the handling. Sit down, my dear; I want to speak to you for a few minutes.’ Then they sat down together on a large prostrate pine, which was being prepared to be sent down to the saw-mill. ‘My dear,’ said he, ‘I want to speak to you about Adrian Urmand.’ She blushed and trembled as she placed herself beside him; but he hardly noticed it. He was not quite at his ease himself, and was a little afraid of the task he had undertaken. ‘Adrian tells me that he asked you to take him as your lover, and that you refused.’
‘Yes, Uncle Michel.’
‘But why, my dear? How are you to do better? Perhaps I, or your aunt, should have spoken to you first, and told you that we thought well of the match.’
‘It wasn’t that, uncle. I knew you thought well of it; or, at least, I believed that you did.’
‘And what is your objection, Marie?’
‘I don’t object to M. Urmand, uncle; — at least, not particularly.’
‘But he says you do object. You would not accept him when he offered himself.’
‘No; I did not accept him.’
‘But you will, my dear — if he comes again?’
‘And why not? Is he not a good young man?’
‘O, yes — that is, I daresay.’
‘And he has a good business. I do not know what more you could expect.’
‘I expect nothing, uncle — except not to go away from you.’
‘Ah — but you must go away from me. I should be very wrong, and so would your aunt, to let you remain here till you lose your good looks, and become an old woman on our hands. You are a pretty girl, Marie, and fit to be any man’s wife, and you ought to take a husband. I am quite in earnest now, my dear; and I speak altogether for your own welfare.’
‘I know you are in earnest, and I know that you speak for my welfare.’
‘Well; — well; — what then? Of course, it is only reasonable that you should be married some day. Here is a young man in a better way of business than any man, old or young, that comes into Granpere. He has a house in Basle, and money to put in it whatever you want. And for the matter of that, Marie, my niece shall not go away from me empty-handed.’
She drew herself closer to him and took hold of his arm and pressed it, and looked up into his face.
‘I brought nothing with me,’ she said, ‘and I want to take nothing away.’
‘Is that it?’ he said, speaking rapidly. ‘Let me tell you then, my girl, that you shall have nothing but your earnings — your fair earnings. Don’t you take trouble about that. Urmand and I will settle that between us, and I will go bail there shall be no unpleasant words. As I said before, my girl sha’n’t leave my house empty-handed; but, Lord bless you, he would only be too happy to take you in your petticoat, just as you are. I never saw a fellow more in love with a girl. Come, Marie, you need not mind saying the word to me, though you could not bring yourself to say it to him.’
‘I can’t say that word, uncle, either to you or to him.’
‘And why the devil not?’ said Michel Voss, who was beginning to be tired of being eloquent.
‘I would rather stay at home with you and my aunt.’
‘Some girls stay at home always. All girls do not get married. I don’t want to be taken to Basle.’
‘This is all nonsense,’ said Michel, getting up. ‘If you’re a good girl, you will do as you are told.’
‘It would not be good to be married to a man if I do not love him.’
‘But why shouldn’t you love him? He’s just the man that all the girls always love. Why don’t you love him?’
As Michel Voss asked this last question, there was a tone of anger in his voice. He had allowed his niece considerable liberty, and now she was unreasonable. Marie, who, in spite of her devotion to her uncle, was beginning to think that she was ill-used by this tone, made no reply. ‘I hope you haven’t been falling in love with any one else,’ continued Michel.
‘No,’ said Marie, in a low whisper.
‘I do hope you’re not still thinking of George, who has left us without casting a thought upon you. I do hope that you are not such a fool as that.’ Marie sat perfectly silent, not moving; but there was a frown on her brow and a look of sorrow mixed with anger on her face. But Michel Voss did not see her face. He looked straight before him as he spoke, and was flinging chips of wood to a distance in his energy. ‘If it’s that, Marie, I tell you you had better get quit of it at once. It can come to no good. Here is an excellent husband for you. Be a good girl, and say that you will accept him.’
‘I should not be a good girl to accept a man whom I do not love.’
‘Is it any thought about George that makes you say so, child?’ Michel paused a moment for an answer. ‘Tell me,’ he continued, with almost angry energy, ‘is it because of George that you refuse yourself to this young man?’
Marie paused again for a moment, and then she replied, ‘No, it is not.’
‘It is not?’
‘Then why will you not marry Adrian Urmand?’
‘Because I do not care for him. Why won’t you let me remain with you, uncle?’
She was very close to him now, and leaning against him; and her throat was half choked with sobs, and her eyes were full of tears. Michel Voss was a soft-hearted man, and inclined to be very soft of heart where Marie Bromar was concerned. On the other hand he was thoroughly convinced that it would be for his niece’s benefit that she should marry this young trader; and he thought also that it was his duty as her uncle and guardian to be round with her, and make her understand, that as her friends wished it, and as the young trader himself wished it, it was her duty to do as she was desired. Another uncle and guardian in his place would hardly have consulted the girl at all. Between his desire to have his own way and reduce her to obedience, and the temptation to put his arm round her waist and kiss away her tears, he was uneasy and vacillating. She gently put her hand within his arm, and pressed it very close.
‘Won’t you let me remain with you, uncle? I love you and Aunt Josey’ (Madame Voss was named Josephine, and was generally called Aunt Josey) ‘and the children. I could not go away from the children. And I like the house. I am sure I am of use in the house.’
‘Of course you are of use in the house. It is not that.’
‘Why, then, should you want to send me away?’
‘What nonsense you talk, Marie! Don’t you know that a young woman like you ought to be married some day — that is if she can get a fitting man to take her? What would the neighbours say of me if we kept you at home to drudge for us, instead of settling you out in the world properly? You forget, Marie, that I have a duty to perform, and you should not make it so difficult.’
‘But if I don’t want to be settled?’ said Marie. ‘Who cares for the neighbours? If you and I understand each other, is not that enough?’
‘I care for the neighbours,’ said Michel Voss with energy.
‘And must I marry a man I don’t care a bit for, because of the neighbours, Uncle Michel?’ asked Marie, with something approaching to indignation in her voice.
Michel Voss perceived that it was of no use for him to carry on the argument. He entertained a half-formed idea that he did not quite understand the objections so strongly urged by his niece; that there was something on her mind that she would not tell him, and that there might be cruelty in urging the matter upon her; but, in opposition to this, there was his assured conviction that it was his duty to provide well and comfortably for his niece, and that it was her duty to obey him in acceding to such provision as he might make. And then this marriage was undoubtedly a good marriage — a match that would make all the world declare how well Michel Voss had done for the girl whom he had taken under his protection. It was a marriage that he could not bear to see go out of the family. It was not probable that the young linen-merchant, who was so well to do in the world, and who, no doubt, might have his choice in larger places than Granpere — it was not probable, Michel thought, that he would put up with many refusals. The girl would lose her chance, unless he, by his firmness, could drive this folly out of her. And yet how could he be firm, when he was tempted to throw his great arms about her, and swear that she should eat of his bread and drink of his cup, and be unto him as a daughter, till the last day of their joint existence. When she crept so close to him and pressed his arm, he was almost overcome by the sweetness of her love and by the tenderness of his own heart.
‘It seems to me that you don’t understand,’ he said at last. ‘I didn’t think that such a girl as you would be so silly.’
To this she made no reply; and then they began to walk down the hill together.
They had walked half way home, he stepping a little in advance — because he was still angry with her, or angry rather with himself in that he could not bring himself to scold her properly — and she following close behind his shoulder, when he stopped suddenly and asked her a question which came from the direction his thoughts were taking at the moment. ‘You are sure,’ he said, ‘that you are not doing this because you expect George to come back to you?’
‘Quite sure,’ she said, bearing forward a moment, and answering him in a whisper when she spoke.
‘By my word, then, I can’t understand it. I can’t indeed. Has Urmand done anything to offend you?’
‘Nor said anything?’
‘Not a word; uncle. I am not offended. Of course I am much obliged to him. Only I don’t love him.’
‘By my faith I don’t understand it. I don’t indeed. It is sheer nonsense, and you must get over it. I shouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t tell you that you must get over it. He will be here again in another ten days, and you must have thought better of it by that time. You must indeed, Marie.’
Then they walked down the hill in silence together, each thinking intently on the purpose of the other, but each altogether misunderstanding the other. Michel Voss was assured — as she had twice implied as much — that she was altogether indifferent to his son George. What he might have said or done had she declared her affection for her absent lover, he did not himself know. He had not questioned himself on that point. Though his wife had told him that Marie was ever thinking of George, he had not believed that it was so. He had no reason for disliking a marriage between his son and his wife’s niece. When he had first thought that they were going to be lovers, under his nose, without his permission — going to commence a new kind of life between themselves without so much as a word spoken to him or by him — he had found himself compelled to interfere, compelled as a father and an uncle. That kind of thing could never be allowed to take place in a well-ordered house without the expressed sanction of the head of the household. He had interfered — rather roughly; and his son had taken him at his word. He was sore now at his son’s coldness to him, and was disposed to believe that his son cared not at all for any one at Granpere. His niece was almost as dear to him as his son, and much more dutiful. Therefore he would do the best he could for his niece. Marie’s declaration that George was nothing to her — that she did not think of him — was in accordance with his own ideas. His wife had been wrong. His wife was usually wrong when any headwork was required. There could be no good reason why Marie Bromar should not marry Adrian Urmand.
But Marie, as she knew very well, had never declared that George Voss was nothing to her — that he was forgotten, or that her heart was free. He had gone from her and had forgotten her. She was quite sure of that. And should she ever hear that he was married to some one else — as it was probable that she would hear some day — then she would be free again. Then she might take this man or that, if her friends wished it — and if she could bring herself to endure the proposed marriage. But at present her troth was plighted to George Voss; and where her troth was given, there was her heart also. She could understand that such a circumstance, affecting one of so little importance as herself, should be nothing to a man like her uncle; but it was everything to her. George had forgotten her, and she had wept sorely over his want of constancy. But though telling herself that this certainly was so, she had declared to herself that she would never be untrue till her want of truth had been put beyond the reach of doubt. Who does not know how hope remains, when reason has declared that there is no longer ground for hoping?
Such had been the state of her mind hitherto; but what would be the good of entertaining hope, even if there were ground for hoping, when, as was so evident, her uncle would never permit George and her to be man and wife? And did she not owe everything to her uncle? And was it not the duty of a girl to obey her guardian? Would not all the world be against her if she refused this man? Her mind was tormented by a thousand doubts, when her uncle said another word to her, just as they were entering the village.
‘You will try and think better of it; — will you not, my dear?’ She was silent. ‘Come, Marie, you can say that you will try. Will you not try?’
‘Yes, uncle — I will try.’
Michel Voss went home in a good humour, for he felt that he had triumphed; and poor Marie returned broken-hearted, for she was aware that she had half-yielded. She knew that her uncle was triumphant.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01