Helen Jackson (H. H.)
Author of "Ramona," "A Century of Dishonor," "Verses," "Sonnets and Lyrics," "Glimpses of Three Coasts," "Bits of Travel," "Bits of Travel at Home," "Zeph," "Mercy Philbrick's Choice," "Hetty's Strange History," "Bits of Talk about Home Matters," "Bits of Talk for Young Folks," "Nelly's Silver Mine," "Cat Stories."
The Inn of the Golden Pear The Mystery of Wilhelm Ruetter Little Bel's Supplement The Captain of the "Heather Bell" Dandy Steve The Prince's Little Sweetheart
The Inn of the Golden Pear.
Who buys? Who buys? 'Tis like a market-fair; The hubbub rises deafening on the air: The children spend their honest money there; The knaves prowl out like foxes from a lair.
Who buys? Who sells? Alas, and still alas! The children sell their diamond stones for glass; The knaves their worthless stones for diamonds pass. He laughs who buys; he laughs who sells. Alas!
In the days when New England was only a group of thinly settled wildernesses called "provinces," there was something almost like the old feudal tenure of lands there, and a relation between the rich land-owner and his tenants which had many features in common with those of the relation between margraves and vassals in the days of Charlemagne.
Far up in the North, near the Canada line, there lived at that time an eccentric old man, whose name is still to be found here and there on the tattered parchments, written "WILLAN BLAYCKE, Gentleman."
Tradition occupies itself a good deal with Willan Blaycke, and does not give his misdemeanors the go-by as it might have done if he had been either a poorer or a less clever man. Why he had crossed the seas and cast in his lot with the pious Puritans, nobody knew; it was certainly not because of sympathy with their God-reverencing faith and God-fearing lives, nor from any liking for hardships or simplicity of habits. He had gold enough, the stories say, to have bought all the land from the St. Johns to the Connecticut if he had pleased; and he had servants and horses and attire such as no governor in all the provinces could boast. He built himself a fine house out of stone, and the life he led in it was a scandal and a byword everywhere. For all that, there was not a man to be found who had not a good word to say for Willan Blaycke, and not a woman who did not look pleased and smile if he so much as spoke to her. He was generous, with a generosity so princely that there were many who said that he had no doubt come of some royal house. He gave away a farm to-day, and another to-morrow, and thought nothing of it; and when tenants came to him pleading that they were unable to pay their rent, he was never known to haggle or insist.
Naturally, with such ways as these he made havoc of his estates, vast as they were, and grew less and less rich year by year. However, there was enough of his land to last several generations out; and if he had married a decent woman for his wife, his posterity need never have complained of him. But this was what Willan Blaycke did,—and it is as much a mystery now as it doubtless was then, why he did it,—he married Jeanne Dubois, the daughter of a low-bred and evil-disposed Frenchman who kept a small inn on the Canadian frontier. Jeanne had a handsome but wicked face. She stood always at the bar, and served every man who came; and a great thing it was for the house, to be sure, that she had such bold black eyes, red cheeks, and a tongue even bolder than her glances. But there was not a farmer in all the north provinces who would have taken her to wife, not one, for she bore none too good a name; and men's speech about her, as soon as they had turned their backs and gone on their journeys, was quite opposite to the gallant and flattering things they said to her face in the bar. Some people said that Willan Blaycke was drunk when he married Jeanne, that she took him unawares by means of a base plot which her father and she had had in mind a long time. Others said that he was sober enough when he did it, only that he was like one out of his mind,—he sorrowed so for the loss of his only son, Willan, whom he had in the beginning of that year sent back to England to be taught in school.
He had brought the child out with him,—a little chap, with marvellously black eyes and yellow curls, who wore always the costliest of embroidered coats, which it was plain some woman's hand had embroidered for him; but whether the child's mother were dead or alive Willan Blaycke never told, and nobody dared ask.
That the boy needed a mother sadly enough was only too plain. Riding from county to county on his little white pony by his father's side, sitting up late at roystering feasts till he nodded in his chair, seeing all that rough men saw, and hearing all that rough men said, the child was in a fair way to be ruined outright; and so Willan Blaycke at last came to see, and one day, in a fit of unwonted conscientiousness and wisdom, he packed the poor sobbing little fellow off to England in charge of a trusty escort, and sternly made up his mind that the lad should not return till he was a man grown. It was only a few months after this that Jeanne Dubois became Mistress Willan Blaycke; so it seemed not improbable that the bereaved father's loneliness had had much to do with that extraordinary step.
Be that as it may, whether he were drunk or sober when he married her, he treated her as a gentleman should treat his wife, and did his best to make her a lady. She was always clad in a rich fashion; and a fine show she made in her scarlet petticoat and white hat with a streaming scarlet feather in it, riding high on her pillion behind Willan Blaycke on his great black horse, or sitting up straight and stiff in the swinging coach with gold on the panels, which he had bought for her in Boston at a sale of the effects of one of the disgraced and removed governors of the province of Massachusetts. If there had been any roads to speak of in those days, Jeanne Dubois would have driven from one end to the other of the land in her fine coach, so proud was she of its splendor; but even pride could not heal the bruises she got in jolting about in it, nor the terror she felt of being overturned. So she gradually left off using it, and consoled herself by keeping it standing in all good weather in full sight from the highway, that everybody might know she had it.
It was a sore trial to Jeanne that she had no children,—a sore trial also to her wicked old father, who had plotted that the great Blaycke estates should go down in the hands of his descendants. Not so Willan Blaycke. It was undoubtedly a consolation to him in his last days to think that his son Willan would succeed to everything, and the Dubois blood remain still in its own muddy channel. It is evident that before he died he had come to think coldly of his wife; for his mention of her in his will was of the curtest, and his provision for her during her lifetime, though amply sufficient for her real needs, not at all in keeping with the style in which she had dwelt with him.
The exiled Willan had returned to America a year before his father's death. He was a quiet, well-educated, rather scholarly young man. It would be foolish to deny that his filial sentiment had grown cool during the long years of his absence, and that it received some violent shocks on his return to his father's house. But he was full of ambition, and soon saw the opening which lay before him for distinction and wealth as the ultimate owner of the Blaycke estates. To this end he bent all his energies. He had had in England a good legal education; he was a clear thinker and a ready speaker, and speedily made himself so well known and well thought of, that when his father died there were many who said it was well the old man had been taken away in time to leave the young Willan a property worthy of his talents and industry.
Willan had lived in his father's house more as a guest than as a son. To the woman who was his father's wife, and sat at the head of his father's table, he bore himself with a distant courtesy, which was far more irritating to her coarse nature than open antagonism would have been. But Jeanne Dubois was clever woman enough to comprehend her own inferiority to both father and son, and to avoid collisions with either. She had won what she had played for, and on the whole she had not been disappointed. As she had never loved her husband, she cared little that he did not love her; and as for the upstart of a boy with his fine airs, well, she would bide her time for that, Jeanne thought,—for it had never crossed Jeanne's mind that when her husband died she would not be still the mistress of the fine stone house and the gilt panelled coach, and have more money than she knew what to do with. Many malicious reveries she had indulged in as to how, when that time came, she would "send the fellow packing," "he shouldn't stay in her house a day." So, when it came to pass that the cards were turned, and it was Willan who said to her, on the morning after his father's funeral, "What are your plans, Madame?" Jeanne was for a few seconds literally dumb with anger and astonishment.
Then she poured out all the pent-up hatred of her vulgar soul. It was a horrible scene. Willan conducted himself throughout the interview with perfect calmness; the same impassable distance which had always been so exasperating to Jeanne was doubly so now. He treated her as if she were merely some dependant of the house, for whom he, as the executor of the will, was about to provide according to instructions.
"If I can't live in my own house," cried the angry woman, "I'll go back to my father and tend bar again; and how'll you like that?"
"It is purely immaterial to me, Madame," replied Willan, "where you live. I merely wish to know your address, that I may forward to you the quarterly payments of your annuity. I should think it probable," he added with an irony which was not thrown away on Jeanne, "that you would be happier among your own relations and in the occupations to which you were accustomed in your youth."
Jeanne was not deficient in spirit. As soon as she had ascertained beyond a doubt that all that Willan had told her was true, and that there was no possibility of her ever getting from the estate anything except her annuity, she packed up all her possessions and left the house. No fine instinct had restrained her from laying, hands on everything to which she could be said to have a shadow of claim,—indeed, on many things to which she had not,—and even Willan himself, who had been prepared for her probable greed, was surprised when on returning to the house late one evening he found the piazza piled high from one end to the other with her boxes. Jeanne stood by with a defiant air, superintending the cording of the last one. She anticipated some remonstrance or inquiry from Willan, and was half disappointed when he passed by, giving no sign of having observed the boxes at all, and simply lifting his hat to her with his usual formality. The next morning, instead of the public vehicle which Jeanne had engaged to call for her, her own coach and the gray horses she had best liked were driven to the door. This unexpected tribute from Willan almost disarmed her for the moment. It was her coach almost more than her house which she had grieved to lose.
"Well, really, Mr. Willan," she exclaimed, "I never once thought of taking that, though there's no doubt about its being my own, and your father'd tell you so if he was here; and the horses too. He always said the grays were mine from the day he bought them. But I'm much obliged to you, I'm sure."
"You have no occasion to thank me, Madame," replied Willan, standing on the threshold of the house, pale with excitement at the prospect of immediate freedom from the presence of the coarse creature. "The coach is your own, and the horses; and if they had not been, I should not have permitted them to remain here."
"Oh ho!" sneered Jeanne, all her antagonism kindled afresh at this last gratuitous fling. "You needn't think you can get rid of everything that'll remind you of me, young man. You'll see me oftener than you like, at the Golden Pear. You'll have to stop there, as your father did before you." And Jeanne's black eyes snapped viciously as she drove off, her piles of boxes following slowly in two wagon-loads behind.
Willan was right in one thing. After the first mortification of returning to her father's house, a widow, disgraced by being pensioned off from her old home, had worn away, Jeanne was happier than she had ever been in her life. Her annuity, which was small for Mistress Willan Blaycke, was large for Jeanne, daughter of the landlord of the Golden Pear; and into that position she sank back at once,—so contentedly, too, that her father was continually reproaching her with a great lack of spirit. It was a sad come-down from his old air-castles for her and for himself,—he still the landlord of a shabby little inn, and Jeanne, stout and middle-aged, sitting again behind the bar as she had done fifteen years before. It was pretty hard. So long as he knew that Jeanne was living in her fine house as Mistress Blaycke he had been content, in spite of Willan Blaycke's having sternly forbidden him ever to show his face there. But this last downfall was too much. Victor Dubois ground his teeth and swore many oaths over it. But no swearing could alter things; and after a while Victor himself began to take comfort in having Jeanne back again. "And not a bit spoiled," as he would say to his cronies, "by all the fine ways, to which she had never taken; thanks to God, Jeanne was as good a girl yet as ever."—"And as handsome too," the politic cronies would add.
The Golden Pear was a much more attractive place since Jeanne had come back. She was a good housekeeper, and she had learned much in Willan Blaycke's house. Moreover, she was a generous creature, and did not in the least mind spending a few dollars here and there to make things tidier and more comfortable.
A few weeks after Jeanne's return to the inn there appeared in the family a new and by no means insignificant member. This was the young Victorine Dubois, who was a daughter, they said, of Victor Dubois's son Jean, the twin brother of Jeanne. He had gone to Montreal many years ago, and had been moderately prosperous there as a wine-seller in a small way. He had been dead now for two years, and his widow, being about to marry again, was anxious to get the young Victorine off her hands. So the story ran, and on the surface it looked probable enough. But Montreal was not a great way off from the parish of St. Urbans, in which stood Victor Dubois's inn; there were men coming and going often who knew the city, and who looked puzzled when it was said in their hearing that Victorine was the eldest child of Jean Dubois the wine-seller. She had been kept at a convent all these years, old Victor said, her father being determined that at least one of his children should be well educated.
Nobody could gainsay this, and Mademoiselle Victorine certainly had the air of having been much better trained and taught than most girls in her station. But somehow, nobody quite knew why, the tale of her being Jean Dubois's daughter was not believed. Suspicions and at last rumors were afloat that she was an illegitimate child of Jeanne's, born a few years before her marriage to Willan Blaycke.
Nothing easier, everybody knew, than for Mistress Willan Blaycke to have supported half a dozen illegitimate children, if she had had them, on the money her husband gave her so lavishly; and there was old Victor, as ready and unscrupulous a go-between as ever an unscrupulous woman needed. These rumors gained all the easier credence because Victorine bore so striking a resemblance to her "Aunt Jeanne." On the other hand, this ought not to have been taken as proof any more one way than the other; for there were plenty of people who recollected very well that in the days when little Jean and Jeanne toddled about together as children, nobody but their mother could tell them apart, except by their clothes. So the winds of gossiping breaths blew both ways at once in the matter, and it was much discussed for a time. But like all scandals, as soon as it became an old story nobody cared whether it were false or true; and before Victorine had been a year at the Golden Pear, the question of her relationship there was rarely raised.
One thing was certain, that no mother could have been fonder or more devoted to a child than Jeanne was to her niece; and everybody said so,—some more civilly, some maliciously. Her pride in the girl's beauty was touching to see. She seemed to have forgotten that she was ever a beauty herself; and she had no need to do this, for Jeanne was not yet forty, and many men found her piquant and pleasing still. But all her vanity seemed now to be transferred to Victorine. It was Victorine who was to have all the fine gowns and ornaments; Victorine who must go to the dances and fetes in costumes which were the wonder and the envy of all the girls in the region; Victorine who was to have everything made easy and comfortable for her in the house; and above all,—and here the mother betrayed herself, for mother she was; the truth may as well be told early as late in our story,—most of all, it was Victorine who was to be kept away from the bar, and to be spared all contact with the rough roysterers who frequented the Golden Pear.
Very ingenious were Jeanne's excuses for these restrictions on her niece's liberty. Still more ingenious her explanations of the occasional exceptions she made now and then in favor of some well-to-do young farmer of the neighborhood, or some traveller in whom her alert maternal eye detected a possible suitor for Victorine's hand. Victorine herself was not so fastidious. She was young, handsome, overflowing with vitality, and with no more conscience or delicacy than her mother had had before her. If the whole truth had been known concerning the last four years of her life in the convent, it would have considerably astonished those good Catholics, if any such there be, who still believe that convents are sacred retreats filled with the chaste and the devout. Victorine Dubois at the age of eighteen, when her grandfather took her home to his house, was as well versed a young woman in the ways and the wiles of love-making as if she had been free to come and go all her life. And that this knowledge had been gained surreptitiously, in stolen moments and brief experiences at the expense of the whole of her reverence for religion, the whole of her faith in men's purity, was not poor Victorine's fault, only her misfortune; but the result was no less disastrous to her morals. She went out of the convent as complete a little hypocrite as ever told beads and repeated prayers. Only a certain sort of infantile superstitiousness of nature remained in her, and made her cling to the forms, in which, though she knew they did not mean what they pretended, she suspected there might be some sort of mechanical efficacy at last; like the partly undeceived disciple and assistant of a master juggler, who is not quite sure that there may not be a supernatural power behind some of the tricks. Beyond an overflowing animal vitality, and a passion for having men make love to her, there really was not much of Victorine. But it is wonderful how far these two qualities can pass in a handsome woman for other and nobler ones. The animal life so keen, intense, sensuous, can seem like cleverness, wit, taste; the passion for receiving homage from men can make a woman graceful, amiable, and alluring. Some of the greatest passions the world has ever seen have been inspired in men by just such women as this.
Victorine was not without accomplishments and some smattering of knowledge. She had read a good deal of French, and chattered it like the true granddaughter of a Normandy proprietaire. She sang, in a half-rude, half-melodious way, snatches of songs which sounded better than they really were, she sang them with so much heartiness and abandon. She embroidered exquisitely, and had learned the trick of making many of the pretty and useless things at which nuns work so patiently to fill up their long hours. She had an insatiable love of dress, and attired herself daily in successions of varied colors and shapes merely to look at herself in the glass, and on the chance of showing herself to any stray traveller who might come.
The inn had been built in a piecemeal fashion by Victor Dubois himself, and he had been unconsciously guided all the while by his memories of the old farmhouse in Normandy in which he was born; so that the house really looked more like Normandy than like America. It had on one corner a square tower, which began by being a shed attached to the kitchen, then was promoted to bearing up a chamber for grain, and at last was topped off by a fine airy room, projecting on all sides over the other two, and having great casement windows reaching close up to the broad, hanging eaves. A winding staircase outside led to what had been the grain-chamber: this was now Jeanne's room. The room above was Victorine's, and she reached it only by a narrow, ladder-like stairway from her mother's bedroom; so the young lady's movements were kept well in sight, her mother thought. It was an odd thing that it never occurred to Jeanne how near the sill of Victorine's south window was to the stout railing of the last broad platform of the outside staircase. This railing had been built up high, and was partly roofed over, making a pretty place for pots of flowers in summer; and Victorine never looked so well anywhere as she did leaning out of her window and watering the flowers which stood there. Many a flirtation went on between this casement window and the courtyard below, where all the travellers were in the habit of standing and talking with the ostlers, and with old Victor himself, who was not the landlord to leave his ostlers to do as they liked with horses and grain,—many a flirtation, but none that meant or did any harm; for with all her wildness and love of frolic, Mademoiselle Victorine never lost her head. Deep down in her heart she had an ambition which she never confessed even to her aunt Jeanne. She had read enough romances to believe that it was by no means an impossible thing that a landlord's daughter should marry a gentleman; and to marry a gentleman, if she married at all, Victorine was fully resolved. She never tired of questioning her aunt about the details of her life in Willan Blaycke's house; and she sometimes gazed for hours at the gilt-panelled coach, which on all fine days stood in the courtyard of the Golden Pear, the wonder of all rustics. On the rare occasions when her aunt went abroad in this fine vehicle, Victorine sat by her side in an ecstasy of pride and delight. It seemed to her that to be the owner of such a coach as that, to live in a fine house, and have a fine gentleman for one's husband must be the very climax of bliss. She wondered much at her aunt's contentment in her present estate.
"How canst thou bear it, Aunt Jeanne?" she said sometimes. "How canst thou bear to live as we live here,—to be in the bar-room with the men, and to sit always in the smoke, after the fine rooms and the company thou hadst for so long?"
"Bah!" Jeanne would reply. "It's little thou knowest of that fine company. I had like to die of weariness more often than I was gay in it; and as for fine rooms, I care nothing for them."
"But thy husband, Aunt Jeanne," Victorine once ventured to say,—"surely thou wert not weary when he was with thee?"
Jeanne's face darkened. "Keep a civiller tongue in thy head," she replied, "than to be talking to widows of the husbands they have buried. He was a good man, Willan Blaycke,—a good man; but I liked him not overmuch, though we lived not in quarrelling. He went his ways, as men go, and I let him be."
Victorine's curiosity was by no means satisfied. She asked endless questions of all whom she met who could tell her anything about her aunt's husband. Very much she regretted that she had not been taken from the convent before this strange, free-hearted, rollicking gentleman had died. She would have managed affairs better, she thought, than Aunt Jeanne had done. Romantic visions of herself as his favorite flitted through her brain.
"Why didst thou not send for me sooner to come to thee, Aunt Jeanne," she said, "that I too might have seen the life in the great stone house?"
A sudden flush covered Jeanne's face. Was she never to hear the end of troublesome questions about the past?
"Wilt thou never have done with it?" she said, half angrily. "Has it never been said in thy hearing how that my husband would not permit even my father to come inside of his house, much less one no nearer than thou?" And Jeanne eyed Victorine sharply, with a suspicion which was wholly uncalled for. Nobody had ever been bold or cruel enough to suggest to Victorine any doubts regarding her birth. The girl was indignant. She had never known before that her grandfather had been thus insulted.
"What had grandfather done?" she cried. "Was he not thy husband's father, too, being thine? How dared thy husband treat him so?"
Jeanne was silent for a few moments. A latent sense of justice to her dead husband restrained her from assenting to Victorine's words.
"Nay," she said; "there are many things thou canst not understand. Thy grandfather never complained. Willan Blaycke treated me most fairly while he lived; and if it had not been for the boy, I would have had thee in the stone house to-day, and had all my rights."
"Why did the boy hate thee?" asked Victorine. "What is he like?"
"As like to a magpie as one magpie is to another," said Jeanne, bitterly; "with his fine French cloth of black, and his white ruffles, and his long words in his mouth. Ah, but him I hate! It is to him we owe it all."
"Dwells he now in the great house alone?" said Victorine.
"Ay, that he does,—alone with his books, of which he has about as many as there are leaves on the trees; one could not so much as step or sit for a book in one's way. I did hear that he has now with him another of his own order, and that the two are riding all over the country, marking out the lines anew of all the farms, and writing new bonds which are so much harder on men than the old ones were. Bah! but he has the soul of a miser in him, for all his handsome face!"
"Is he then so very handsome, Aunt Jeanne?" said Victorine, eagerly.
"Ay, ay, child. I'll give him his due for that, evilly as he has treated me. He is a handsomer man than his father was; and when his father and I were married there was not a woman in the provinces that did not say I had carried off the handsomest man that ever strode a horse. I'd like to have had thee see me, too, in that day, child. I was counted as handsome as he, though thou'dst never think it now."
"But I would think it!" cried Victorine, hotly and loyally. "What ails thee, Aunt Jeanne? Did I not hear Father Hennepin himself saying to thee only yesterday that thou wert comelier to-day than ever? and he saw thee married, he told me."
"Tut, tut, child!" replied Jeanne, looking pleased. "None know better than the priests how to speak idle words to women. But what was he telling thee? How came it that he spoke of the time when I was married?" added Jeanne, again suspicious.
"It was I that asked him," replied Victorine. "I wish always so much that I had been with thee instead of in the convent, dear aunt. Does this son of thy husband, this handsome young man who is so like unto a magpie,—does he never in his journeyings come this way?"
"Ay, often," replied Jeanne. "I know that he must, because a large part of his estate lies beyond the border and joins on to this parish. It was that which brought his father here, in the beginning, and there is no other inn save this for miles up and down the border where he can tarry; but it is likely that he will sooner lie out in the fields than sleep under this roof, because I am here. I had looked to say my mind to him as often as he came; and that it would be a sore thing to him to see his father's wife in the bar, I know beyond a doubt. I have often said to myself what a comfortable spleen I should experience when I might courtesy to him and say, 'What would you be pleased to take, sir?' But I think he is minded to rob me of that pleasure, for it is certain he must have ridden this way before now."
"I have a mind to burn a candle to the Virgin," said Victorine, slowly, "that he may come here. I would like for once to set my eyes on his face."
An unwonted earnestness in Victorine's tone and a still more unwonted seriousness in her face arrested Jeanne's attention.
"What is it to thee to see him or not to see him, eh? What is it thou hast in thy silly head. If thou thinkest thou couldst win him over to take us back to live in his house again,—which is my own house, to be sure, if I had my rights,—thy wits are wool-gathering, I can tell thee that," cried Jeanne. "He has the pride of ten thousand devils in him. There was that in his face when I drove away from the door,—and he standing with his head uncovered too,—which I tell thee if I had been a man I could have killed him for. He take us back! He! he!" And Jeanne laughed a bitter laugh at the bare idea of the thing.
"I had not thought of any such thing, Aunt Jeanne," replied Victorine, still speaking slowly, and still with a dreamy expression on her face, as she leaned out of the window and began idly plucking the blossoms from a bough of the big pear-tree, which was now all white with flowers and buzzing with bees. "Dost thou not think the bees steal a little sweet that ought to go into the fruit?" continued the artful girl, who did not choose that her aunt should question her any further as to the reason of her desire to see Willan Blaycke. "I remember that once Father Anselmo at the convent said to me he thought so. There was a vine of the wild grape which ran all over the wall between the cloister and the convent; and when it was in bloom the air sickened one, and thou couldst hardly go near the wall for the swarming bees that were drinking the honey from the flowers. And Father Anselmo said one evening that they were thieves; they stole sweet which ought to go into the grapes."
This was a clever diversion. It turned Jeanne's thoughts at once away from Willan Blaycke, but it did not save Mademoiselle Victorine from a catechising quite as sharp as she was in danger of on the other subject.
"And what wert thou doing talking with a priest in the garden at night?" cried Jeanne, fiercely. "Is that the way maidens are trained in a convent! Shame on thee, Victorine! what hast thou revealed?"
"The Virgin forbid," answered Victorine, piously, racking her brains meanwhile for a ready escape from this dilemma, and trying in her fright to recall precisely what she had just said. "I said not that he told it to me in the garden; it was in the confessional that he said it. I had confessed to him the grievous sin of a horrible rage I had been in when one of the bees had stung me on the lip as I was gathering the cool vine leaves to lay on the good Sister Clarice's forehead, who was ill with a fever."
"Eh, eh!" said Jeanne, relieved; "was that it? I thought it could not be thou wert in the garden in the evening hours, and with a priest."
"Oh no," said Victorine, demurely. "It was not permitted to converse with the priests except in the chapel." And choking back an amused little laugh she bounded to the ladder-like stairway and climbed up into her own room.
"Saints! what an ankle the girl has, to be sure!" thought Jeanne, as she watched Victorine's shapely legs slowly vanishing up the stair. "What has filled her head so full of that upstart Willan, I wonder!"
A thought struck Jeanne; the only wonder was it had never struck her before. In her sudden excitement she sprung from her chair, and began to walk rapidly up and down the floor. She pressed her hand to her forehead; she tore open the handkerchief which was crossed on her bosom; her eyes flashed; her cheeks grew red; she breathed quicker.
"The girl's handsome enough to turn any man's head, and twice as clever as I ever was," she thought.
She sat down in her chair again. The idea which had occurred to her was over-whelming. She spoke aloud and was unconscious of it.
"Ah, but that would be a triumph!" she said. "Who knows? who knows?"
"Victorine!" she called; "Victorine!"
"Yes, aunt," replied Victorine.
"There's plenty of honey left in the flowers to keep pears sweet after the bees are dead," said Jeanne, mischievously, and went downstairs chuckling over her new secret thought. "I'll never let the child know I've thought of such a thing," she mused, as she took her accustomed seat in the bar. "I'll bide my time. Strange things have happened, and may happen again."
"What a queer speech of Aunt Jeanne's!" thought Victorine at her casement window. "What a fool I was to have said anything about Father Anselmo! Poor fellow! I wonder why he doesn't run away from the monastery!"
The south wind's secret, when it blows, Oh, what man knows? How did it turn the rose's bud Into a rose? What went before, no garden shows; Only the rose!
What hour the bitter north wind blows, The south wind knows. Why did it turn the rose's bud Into a rose? Alas, to-day the garden shows A dying rose!
Jeanne had not to wait long. It was only a few days after this conversation with Victorine,—the big pear-tree was still snowy-white with bloom, and the tireless bees still buzzed thick among its boughs,—when Jeanne, standing in the doorway at sunset, saw two riders approaching the inn. At her first glance she recognized Willan Blaycke. Jeanne's mind moved quickly. In the twinkling of an eye she had sprung back into the bar-room, and said to her father,—
"Father, father, be quick! Here comes Willan Blaycke riding; and another, an old man, with him. Thou must tend the bar; for hand so much as a glass of gin to that man will I never. I shut myself up till he is gone."
"Nay, nay, Jeanne," replied Victor; "I'll turn him from my door. He's to get no lodging under this roof, he nor his,—I promise you that." And Victor was bustling angrily to the door.
This did not suit Mistress Jeanne at all. In great dismay inwardly, but outwardly with slow and smooth-spoken accents, as if reflecting discreetly, she replied, "He might do me great mischief if he were angered, father. All the moneys go through his hand. I think it is safer to speak him fair. He hath the devil's own temper if he be opposed in the smallest thing. It has cost him sore enough, I'll be bound, to find himself here at sundown, and beholden to thee for shelter; it is none of his will to come, I know that well enough. Speak him fair, father, speak him fair; it is a silly fowl that pecks at the hand which holds corn. I will hide myself till he is away, though, for I misgive me that I should be like to fly out at him."
"But, Jeanne—" persisted Victor. But Jeanne was gone.
"Speak him fair, father; take no note that aught is amiss," she called back from the upper stair, from which she was vanishing into her chamber. "I will send Victorine to wait at the supper. He hath never seen her, and need not to know that she is of our kin at all,"
"Humph!" muttered Victor. "Small doubt to whom the girl is kin, if a man have eyes in his head." And he would have argued the point longer with Jeanne, but he had no time left, for the riders had already turned into the courtyard, and were giving their horses in charge to the white-headed ostler Benoit. Benoit had served in the Golden Pear for a quarter of a century. He had served Victor Dubois's father in Normandy, had come with his young master to America, and was nominally his servant still. But if things had gone by their right names at the Golden Pear, old Benoit would not have been called servant for many a year back. Not a secret in that household which Benoit had not shared; not a plot he had not helped on. At Jeanne's marriage he was the only witness except Father Hennepin; and there were some who recollected still with what extraordinary chuckles of laughter Benoit had walked away from the chapel after that ceremony had been completed. To the young Victorine Benoit had been devoted ever since her coming to the inn. Whenever she appeared in sight the old man came to gaze on her, and stood lingering and admiring as long as she remained.
"Thou art far handsomer than thy mother ever was," he had said to her one morning soon after her arrival.
"Oh, didst thou know my mother, then, when she was young?" cried Victorine. "She is not handsome now, though she is newly wed; when she came to see me in the convent, I thought her very ugly. When didst thou know her, Benoit?"
Benoit was very red in the face, and began to toss straw vigorously as he looked away from Victorine and answered: "It was but once that I had sight of her, when Master Jean brought her here after they were married. Thou dost not favor her in the least. Thou art like Master Jean."
"And the saints know that that last is the holy truth, whatever the rest may be," thought Benoit, as he bustled about the courtyard.
"But thy tongue is the tongue of an imbecile," said Victor, following him into the stable.
"Ay, that it is, sir," replied Benoit, humbly. "I had like to have bitten it off before I had finished speaking; but no harm came."
"Not this time," replied Victor; "but the next thou might not be so well let off. The girl has a sharper wit than she shows ordinarily. She hath learned too well the ways of convents. I trust her not wholly, Benoit. Keep thy eyes open, Benoit. We'll not have her go the ways of her mother if it can be helped." And the worldly and immoral old grandfather turned on his heel with a wicked laugh.
Benoit had never seen young Willan Blaycke, but he knew him at his first glance.
"The son!" he muttered under his breath, as he saw him alight. "Is he to be lodged here? I doubt." And Benoit looked about for Victor, who was nowhere to be seen. Slowly and with a surly face he came forward to take the horses.
"What're you about, old man? Wear you shoes of lead? Take our horses, and see you to it they are well rubbed down before they have aught to eat or drink. We have ridden more than ten leagues since the noon," cried the elder of the two travellers.
"And ought to have ridden more," said the younger in an undertone. It was, as Jeanne had said, a sore thing to Willan Blaycke to be forced to seek a night's shelter in the Golden Pear.
"Tut, tut!" said the other, "what odds! It is a whimsey, a weakness of yours, boy. What's the woman to you?"
Victor Dubois, who had come up now, heard these words, and his swarthy cheek was a shade darker. Benoit, who had lingered till he should receive a second order from the master of the inn as to the strangers' horses, exchanged a quick glance with Victor, while he said in a respectful tone, "Two horses, sir, for the night." The glance said, "I know who the man is; shall we keep him?"
"Ay, Benoit," Victor answered; "see that Jean gives them a good rubbing at once. They have been hard ridden, poor beasts!" While Victor was speaking these words his eyes said to Benoit, "Bah! It is even so; but we dare not do otherwise than treat him fair."
"Will you be pleased to walk in, gentlemen; and what shall I have the honor of serving for your supper?" he continued. "We have some young pigeons, if your worships would like them, fat as partridges, and still a bottle or two left of our last autumn's cider."
"By all means, landlord, by all means, let us have them, roasted on a spit, man,—do you hear?—roasted on a spit, and let your cook lard them well with fat bacon; there is no bird so fat but a larding doth help it for my eating," said the elder man, rubbing his hands and laughing more and more cheerily as his companion looked each moment more and more glum.
"No, I'll not go in," said Willan, as Victor threw open the door into the bar-room. "It suits me better to sit here under the trees until supper is ready." And he threw himself down at the foot of the great pear-tree. He feared to see Jeanne sitting in the bar, as she had threatened. The ground was showered thick with the soft white petals of the blossoms, which were now past their prime. Willan picked up a handful of them and tossed them idly in the air. As he did so, a shower of others came down on his face, thick, fast; they half blinded him for a moment. He sprung to his feet and looked up. It was like looking into a snowy cloud. He saw nothing. "Some bird flying through," he thought, and lay down again.
"Ah! luck for the bees, The flowers are in flower; Luck for the bees in spring. Ah me, but the flowers, they die in an hour; No summer is fair as the spring. Ah! luck for the bees; The honey in flowers Is highest when they are on wing!"
came in a gay Provencal melody from the pear-tree above Willan's head, and another shower of white petals fell on his face.
"Good God!" said Willan Blaycke, under his breath, "what witchcraft is going on here? what girl's voice is that?" And he sprang again to his feet.
The voice died slowly away; the singer was moving farther off,—
"Ah! woe for the bees, The flowers are dead; No summer is fair as the spring. Ah me, but the honey is thick in the comb; 'Tis a long time now since spring. Ah, woe for the bees That honey is sweet, Is sweeter than anything!"
"Sweeter than anything,—sweeter than anything!" the voice, grown faint now, repeated this refrain over and over, as the syllables of sound died away.
It was Victorine going very slowly down the staircase from her room into Jeanne's. And it was Victorine who had accidentally brushed the pear-tree boughs as she watered her plants on the roof of the outside stairway. She did not see Willan lying on the ground underneath, and she did not think that Willan might be hearing her song; and yet was her head full of Willan Blaycke as she went down the staircase, and not a little did she quake at the thought of seeing him below.
Jeanne had come breathless to her room, crying, "Victorine! Victorine! That son of my husband's of whom we were talking, young Willan Blaycke, is at the door,—he, and an old man with him; and they must perforce stay here all night. Now, it would be a shame I could in no wise bear to stand and serve him at supper. Wilt thou not do it in my stead? there are but the two." And the wily Jeanne pretended to be greatly distressed, as she sank into a chair and went on: "In truth, I do not believe I can look on his face at all. I will keep my room till he have gone his way,—the villain, the upstart, that I may thank for all my trouble! Oh, it brings it all back again, to see his face!" And Jeanne actually brought a tear or two into her wily eyes.
The no less wily Victorine tossed her head and replied: "Indeed, then, and the waiting on him is no more to my liking than to thine own, Aunt Jeanne! I did greatly desire to see his face, to see what manner of man he could be that would turn his father's widow out of her house; but I think Benoit may hand the gentleman his wine, not I." And Victorine sauntered saucily to the window and looked out.
"A plague on all their tempers!" thought Jeanne, impatiently. Her plans seemed to be thwarted when she least expected it. For a few moments she was silent, revolving in her mind the wisdom of taking Victorine into her counsels, and confiding to her the motive she had for wishing her to be seen by Willan Blaycke. But she dreaded lest this might defeat her object by making the girl self-conscious. Jeanne was perplexed; and in her perplexity her face took on an expression as if she were grieved. Victorine, who was much dismayed by her aunt's seeming acquiescence in her refusal to serve the supper, exclaimed now,—
"Nay, nay, Aunt Jeanne, do not look grieved. I will indeed go down and serve the supper, if thou takest it so to heart. The man is nothing to me, that I need fear to see him."
"Thou art a good girl," replied Jeanne, much relieved, and little dreaming how she had been gulled by Mademoiselle Victorine,—"thou art a good girl, and thou shalt have my lavender-colored paduasoy gown if thou wilt lay thyself out to see that all is at its best, both in the bedrooms and for the supper. I would have Willan Blaycke perceive that one may live as well outside of his house as in it. And, Victorine," she added, with an attempt at indifference in her tone, "wear thy white gown thou hadst on last Sunday. It pleased me better than any gown thou hast worn this year,—that, and thy black silk apron with the red lace; they become thee."
So Victorine had arrayed herself in the white gown; it was of linen quaintly woven, with a tiny star thrown up in the pattern, and shone like damask. The apron was of heavy black silk, trimmed all around with crimson lace, and crimson lace on the pockets. A crimson rose in Victorine's black hair and crimson ribbons at her throat and on her sleeves completed the toilet. It was ravishing; and nobody knew it better than Mademoiselle Victorine herself, who had toiled many an hour in the convent making the crimson lace for the precise purpose of trimming a black apron with it, if ever she escaped from the convent, and who had chosen out of fifty rose-bushes at the last Parish Fair the one whose blossoms matched her crimson lace. There is a picture still to be seen of Victorine in this costume; and many a handsome young girl, having copied the costume exactly for a fancy ball, has looked from the picture to herself and from herself to the picture, and gone to the ball dissatisfied, thinking in her heart,—
"After all, I don't look half as well in it as that French girl did."
As Victorine came leisurely down the stairs, half singing, half chanting, her little song, Jeanne looked at her in admiration.
"Well, and if either of the men have an eye for a pretty girl clad in attire that becomes her, they can look at thee, my Victorine. That black apron will go well with the lavender paduasoy also."
"That it will, Aunt Jeanne," answered Victorine, her face glowing with pleasure. "I can never thank thee enough. I did not think ever to have the paduasoy for my own."
"All my gowns are for thee," said Jeanne, in a voice of great tenderness. "I shall presently take to the wearing of black; it better suits my years. Thou canst be young; it is enough. I am an old woman."
Victorine bent over and kissed her aunt, and whispered: "Fie on thee, Aunt Jeanne! The Father Hennepin does not think thee an old woman; neither Pierre Gaspard from the mill. I hear the men when they are talking under my window of thee. Thou knowest thou mightest wed any day if thou hadst the mind."
Jeanne shook her head. "That I have not, then," she said. "I keep the name of Willan Blaycke for all that of any man hereabouts which can be offered to me. Thou art the one to wed, not I. But far off be that day," she added hastily; "thou art young for it yet."
"Ay," replied the artful young maiden, "that am I, and I think I will be old before any man make a drudge of me. I like my freedom better. And now will I go down and serve thy stepson,—the handsome magpie, the reader of books." And with a mocking laugh Victorine bounded down the staircase and went into the kitchen. Her grandfather was running about there in great confusion, from dresser to fireplace, to table, to pantry, back and forth, breathless and red in the face. The pigeons were sputtering before the fire, and the odor of the frying bacon filled the place.
"Diable! Girl, out of this!" he cried; "this is no place for thee. Go to thine aunt."
"She did bid me come and serve the supper for the strangers," replied Victorine. "She herself will not come down."
"Go to the devil! Thou shalt not, and it is I that say it," shouted Victor; and Victorine, terrified, fled back to Jeanne, and reported her grandfather's words.
Poor Jeanne was at her wit's end now. "Why said he that?" she asked.
"I know not," replied Victorine, demurely. "He was in one of his great rages, and I do think that the pigeons are fast burning, by the smell."
"Bah!" cried Jeanne, in disgust. "Is this a house to live in, where one cannot be let down from one's chamber except in sight of the highway? Run, Victorine! Look over and see if the strangers be in sight. I must go down to the kitchen. I would a witch were at hand with a broom or a tail of a mare. I'd mount and down the chimney, I warrant me!"
Laughing heartily, Victorine ran to reconnoitre. "There is none in sight," she cried. "Thou canst come down. A man is asleep under the pear-tree, but I think not he is one of them."
Jeanne ran quickly down the stairs, followed by Victorine, who, as she entered the kitchen again, took up her position in one corner, and stood leaning against the wall, tapping her pretty little black slippers with their crimson bows impatiently on the floor. Jeanne drew her father to one side, and whispered in his ear. He retorted angrily, in a louder tone. Not a look or tone was lost on Victorine. Presently the old man, shrugging his shoulders, went back to the pigeons, and began to turn the spit, muttering to himself in French. Jeanne had conquered.
"Thy grandfather is in a rage," she said to Victorine, "because we must give meat and drink to the man who has treated me so ill; that is why he did not wish thee to serve. But I have persuaded him that it is needful that we do all we can to keep Willan Blaycke well disposed to us. He might withhold from me all my money if he so chose; and he is rich, and we are but poor people. We could not find any redress. So do thou take care and treat him as if thou hadst never heard aught against him from me. It will lie with thee, child, to see that he goes not away angered; for thy grandfather is in a mood when the saints themselves could not hold his tongue if he have a mind to speak. Keep thou out of his sight till supper be ready. I stay here till all is done."
Between the kitchen and the common living-room, which was also the dining-room, was a long dark passage-way, at one end of which was a small storeroom. Here Victorine took refuge, to wait till her aunt should call her to serve the supper. The window of this storeroom was wide open. The shutter had fallen off the hinges several days before, and Benoit had forgotten to put it up. Victorine seated herself on a cider cask close to the window, and leaning her head against the wall began to sing again in a low tone. She had a habit of singing at all times, and often hardly knew that she sang at all. The Provencal melody was still running in her head.
"Ah! luck for the bees, The flowers are in flower; Luck for the bees in spring. Ah me, but the flowers, they die in an hour; No summer is fair as the spring. Ah! luck for the bees; The honey in flowers Is highest when they are on wing!"
she sang. Then suddenly breaking off she began singing a wild, sad melody of another song:—
"The sad spring rain, It has come at last. The graves lie plain, And the brooks run fast; And drip, drip, drip, Falls the sad spring rain; And tears fall fresh, In the sad spring air, From lovers' eyes, On the graves laid bare."
It was very dark in the storeroom; it was dark out of doors. The moon had been up for an hour, but the sky was overcast thick with clouds. Willan Blaycke was still asleep under the pear-tree. His head was only a few feet from the storeroom window. The sound of Victorine's singing reached his ears, but did not at first waken him, only blended confusedly with his dreams. In a few seconds, however, he waked, sprang to his feet, and looked about him in bewilderment. Out of the darkness, seemingly within arm's reach, came the low sweet notes,—
"And drip, drip, drip, Falls the sad spring rain; And tears fall fresh, In the sad spring air, From lovers' eyes, On the graves laid bare."
Groping his way in the direction from which the voice came, Willan stumbled against the wall of the house, and put his hand on the window-sill. "Who sings in here?" he cried, fumbling in the empty space.
"Holy Mother!" shrieked Victorine, and ran out of the storeroom, letting the door shut behind her with all its force. The noise echoed through the inn, and waked Willan's friend, who was also taking a nap in one of the old leather-cushioned high-backed chairs in the bar-room. Rubbing his eyes, he came out to look for Willan. He met him on the threshold.
"Ah!" he said, "where have you been all this time? I have slept in a chair, and am vastly rested."
"The Lord only knows where I have been," answered Willan, laughing. "I too have slept; but a woman with a voice like the voice of a wild bird has been singing strange melodies in my ear."
The elder man smiled. "The dreams of young men," he said, "are wont to have the sound of women's voices in them."
"This was no dream," retorted Willan. "She was so near me I heard the panting breath with which she cried out and fled when I made a step towards her."
"Gentlemen, will it please you to walk in to supper?" said Victor, appearing in the doorway with a clean white apron on, and no trace, in his smiling and obsequious countenance, of the rage in which he had been a few minutes before.
A second talk with Jeanne after Victorine had left the kitchen had produced a deep impression on Victor's mind. He was now as eager as Jeanne herself for the meeting between Victorine and Willan Blaycke.
The pigeons were not burned, after all. Most savory did they smell, and Willan Blaycke and his friend fell to with a will.
"Saidst thou not thou hadst some of thy famous pear cider left, landlord?" asked Willan.
"Ay, sir, my granddaughter has gone to draw it; she will be here in a trice."
As he spoke the door opened, and Victorine entered, bearing in her left hand a tray with two curious old blue tankards on it; in her right hand a gray stone jug with blue bands at its neck. Both the jug and the tankards had come over from Normandy years ago. Victorine raised her eyes, and looking first at Willan, then at his friend, went immediately to the older man, and courtesying gracefully, set her tray down on the table by his side, and filled the two tankards. The cider was like champagne; it foamed and sparkled. The old man eyed it keenly.
"This looks like the cidre mousseux I drank at Littry," he said, and taking up his tankard tossed it off at a draught. "Tastes like it, too, by Jove!" he said. "Old man, out of what fruits in this bleak country dost thou conjure such a drink?"
Victor smiled. Praise of the cider of the Golden Pear went to his heart of hearts. "Monsieur has been in Calvados," he said. "It is kind of him then to praise this poor drink of mine, which would be but scorned there. There is not a warm enough sunshine to ripen our pears here to their best, and the variety is not the same; but such as they are, I have an orchard of twenty trees, and it is by reason of them that the inn has its name."
Willan was not listening to this conversation. He held his fork, with a bit of untasted pigeon on it, uplifted in one hand; with the other he drummed nervously on the table. His eyes were riveted on Victorine, who stood behind the old man's chair, her soft black eyes glancing quietly from one thing to another on the table to see if all were right. Willan's gaze did not escape the keen eyes of Victorine's grandfather. Chuckling inwardly, he assumed an expression of great anxiety, and coming closer to Willan's chair said in a deprecating tone,—
"Are not the pigeons done to your liking, sir? You do not eat."
Willan started, dropped his fork, then hastily took it up again.
"Yes, yes," he said, "that they are; done to a turn." And he fell to eating again. But do what he would, he could not keep his eyes off the face of the girl. If she moved, his gaze followed her about the room, as straight as a steel follows on after a magnet; and when she stood still, he cast furtive glances that way each minute. In very truth, he might well be forgiven for so doing. Not often does it fall to the lot of men to see a more bewitching face than the face of Victorine Dubois. Many a woman might be found fairer and of a nobler cast of feature; but in the countenance of Victorine Dubois was an unaccountable charm wellnigh independent of feature, of complexion, of all which goes to the ordinary summing up of a woman's beauty. There was in the glance of her eye a something, I know not what, which no man living could wholly resist. It was at once defiant and alluring, tender and mocking, artless and mischievous. No man could make it out; no man might see it twice alike in the space of an hour. No more was the girl herself twice alike in an hour, or a day, for that matter. She was far more like some frolicsome creature of the woods than like a mortal woman. The quality of wildness which Willan had felt in her voice was in her nature. Neither her grandfather nor her mother had in the least comprehended her during the few months she had lived with them. A certain gentleness of nature, which was far more physical than mental, far more an idle nonchalance than recognition of relations to others, had blinded them to her real capriciousness and selfishness. They rarely interfered with her, or observed her with any discrimination. Their love was content with her surface of good humor, gayety, and beauty; she was an ever-present delight and pride to them both, and that she might only partially reciprocate this fondness never crossed their minds. They did not realize that during all these eighteen years that they had been caring, planning, and plotting for her their names had represented nothing in her mind except unseen, unknown relatives to whom she was indebted for support, but to whom she also owed what she hated and rebelled against,—her imprisonment in the convent. Why should she love them? Blood tells, however; and when Victorine found herself free, and face to face with the grandfather of whom she had so long heard and only once seen, and the Aunt Jeanne who had been described to her as the loving benefactress of her youth, she had a new and affectionate sentiment towards them. But she would at any minute have calmly sacrificed them both for the furtherance of her own interests; and the thoughts she was thinking while Willan Blaycke gazed at her so ardently this night were precisely as follows:—
"If I could only have a good chance at him, I could make him marry me. I see it in his face. I suppose I'd never see Aunt Jeanne again, or grandfather; but what of that? I'd play my cards better than Aunt Jeanne did, I know that much. Let me once get to be mistress of that stone house—" And the color grew deeper and deeper on Victorine's cheeks in the excitement of these reflections.
"Poor girl!" Willan Blaycke was thinking. "I must not gaze at her so constantly. The color in her cheeks betrays that I distress her." And the honest gentleman tried his best to look away and bear good part in conversation with his friend. It was a doubly good stroke on the part of the wily Victorine to take her place behind the elder man's chair. It looked like a proper and modest preference on her part for age; and it kept her out of the old man's sight, and in the direct range of Willan's eyes as he conversed with his friend. When she had occasion to hand anything to Willan she did so with an apparent shyness which was captivating; and the tone of voice in which she spoke to him was low and timid.
Old Victor could hardly contain himself. He went back and forth between the dining-room and kitchen far oftener than was necessary, that he might have the pleasure of saying to Jeanne: "It works! it works! He doth gaze the eyes out of his head at her. The girl could not do better. She hath affected the very thing which will snare him the quickest."
"Oh no, father! Thou mistakest Victorine. She hath no plan of snaring him; it was with much ado I got her to consent to serve him at all. It was but for my sake she did it."
Victor stared at Jeanne when she said this. "Thou hast not told her, then?" he said.
"Nay, that would have spoiled all; if the girl herself had it in her head, he would have seen it."
Victor walked slowly back into the dining-room, and took further and closer observations of Mademoiselle Victorine's behavior and expressions. When he went next to the kitchen he clapped Jeanne on the shoulder, and said with a laugh: "'Tis a wise mother knows her own child. If that girl in yonder be not bent on turning the head of Willan Blaycke before she sleeps to-night, may the devil fly away with me!"
"Well, likely he may, if thou prove not too heavy a load," retorted the filial Jeanne. "I tell thee the girl's heart is full of anger against Willan Blaycke. She is but doing my bidding. I charged her to see to it that he was pleased, that he should go away our friend."
"And so he will go," replied Victor, dryly; "but not for thy bidding or mine. The man is that far pleased already that he shifteth as if the very chair were hot beneath him. A most dutiful niece thou hast, Mistress Jeanne!"
When supper was over Willan Blaycke walked hastily out of the house. He wanted to be alone. The clouds had broken away, and the full moon shone out gloriously. The great pear-tree looked like a tree wrapped in cloud, its blossoms were so thick and white. Willan paced back and forth beneath it, where he had lain sleeping before supper. He looked toward the window from whence he had heard the singing voice. "It must have been she," he said. "How shall I bring it to pass to see her again? for that I will and must." He went to the window and looked in. All was dark. As he turned away the door at the farther end opened, and a ray of light flashing in from the hall beyond showed Victorine bearing in her hand the jug of cider. She had made this excuse to go to the storeroom again, having observed that Willan had left the house.
"He might seek me again there," thought she.
Willan heard the sound, turned back, and bounding to the window exclaimed, "Was it thou who sang?"
Victorine affected not to hear. Setting down her jug, she came close to the window and said respectfully: "Didst thou call? What can I fetch, sir?"
Willan Blaycke leaned both his arms on the window-sill, and looking into the eyes of Victorine Dubois replied: "Marry, girl, thou hast already fetched me to such a pass that thy voice rings in my ears. I asked thee if it were thou who sang?"
Retreating from the window a step or two, Victorine said sorrowfully: "I did not think that thou hadst the face of one who would jest lightly with maidens." And she made as if she would go away.
"Pardon, pardon!" cried Willan. "I am not jesting; I implore thee, think it not. I did sleep under this tree before supper, and heard such singing! I had thought it a bird over my head except that the song had words. I know it was thou. Be not angry. Why shouldst thou? Where didst thou learn those wild songs?"
"From Sister Clarice, in the convent," answered Victorine. "It is only last Easter that my grandfather fetched me from the convent to live with him and my aunt Jeanne."
"Thy aunt Jeanne," said Willan, slowly. "Is she thy aunt?"
"Yes," said Victorine, sadly; "she that was thy father's wife, whom thou wilt not have in thy house."
This was a bold stroke on Victorine's part. To tell truth, she had had no idea one moment before of saying any such thing; but a sudden emotion of resentment got the better of her, and the words were uttered before she knew it.
Willan was angry. "All alike," he thought to himself,—"a bad lot. I dare say the woman has set the girl here for nothing else than to try to play on my feelings." And it was in a very cold tone that he replied to Victorine,—
"Thou art not able to judge of such matters at thy age. Thy aunt is better here than there. Thou knowest," he added in a gentler tone, seeing Victorine's great black eyes swimming in sudden tears, "that she was never as mother to me. I had never seen her till I returned a man grown."
Victorine was sobbing now. "Oh," she cried, "what ill luck is mine! I have angered thee; and my aunt did especially charge me that I was to treat thee well. She doth never speak an ill word of thee, sir, never! Do not thou charge my hasty words to her." And Victorine leaned out of the window, and looked up in Willan Blaycke's face with a look which she had had good reason to know was well calculated to move a man's heart.
Willan Blaycke had led a singularly pure life. He was of a reticent and partly phlegmatic nature; though he looked so like his father, he resembled him little in temperament. This calmness of nature, added to a deep-seated pride, had stood him in stead of firmly rooted principles of virtue, and had carried him safe through all the temptations of his unprotected and lonely youth. He had the air and bearing, and had had in most things the experience, of a man of the world; and yet he was as ignorant of the wily ways of a wily woman as if he had never been out of the wilderness. Victorine's tears smote on him poignantly.
"Thou poor child!" he said most kindly, "do not weep. Thou hast done no harm. I bear no ill will to thine aunt, and never did; and if I had, thou wouldst have disarmed it. This inn seems to me no place for a young maiden like thee."
Victorine glanced cautiously around her, and whispered: "It were ungrateful in me to say as much; but oh, sir, if thou didst but know how I wish myself back in the convent! I like not the ways of this place; and I fear so much the men who are often here. When thou didst speak at first I did think thou wert like them; but now I perceive that thou art quite different. Thou seemest to me like the men of whom Sister Clarice did tell me." Victorine stopped, called up a blush to her cheeks, and said: "But I must not stay talking with thee. My aunt will be looking for me."
"Stay," said Willan. "What did the Sister Clarice tell thee of men? I thought not that nuns conversed on such matters."
"Oh!" replied Victorine, innocently, "it was different with the Sister Clarice. She was a noble lady who had been betrothed, and her betrothed died; and it was because there were none left so noble and so good as he, she said, that she had taken the veil and would die in the convent. She did talk to me whole nights about this young lord whom she was to have wed, and she did think often that she saw his face look down through the roof of the cell."
Clever Victorine! She had invented this tale on the spur of the instant. She could not have done better if she had plotted long to devise a method of flattering Willan Blaycke. It is strange how like inspiration are the impulses of artful women at times. It would seem wellnigh certain that they must be prompted by malicious fiends wishing to lure men on to destruction in the surest way.
Victorine had talked with Willan perhaps five minutes. In that space of time she had persuaded him of four things, all false,—that she was an innocent, guileless girl; that she had been seized with a sudden and reverential admiration for him; that she had no greater desire in life than to be back again in the safe shelter of the convent; and that her aunt Jeanne had never said an ill-word of him.
"Victorine! Victorine!" called a sharp loud voice,—the voice of Jeanne,—who would have bitten her tongue out rather than have broken in on this interview, if she had only known. "Victorine, where art thou loitering?"
"Oh, for heaven's sake, sir, do not thou tell my grandfather that I have talked with thee!" cried Victorine, in feigned terror. "Here I am, aunt; I will be there in one second," she cried aloud, and ran hastily down the storeroom. At the door she stopped, hesitated, turned back, and going towards the window said wistfully: "Thou hast never been here before all these three months. I suppose thou travellest this way very seldom."
The full moon shone on Victorine's face as she said this. Her expression was like that of a wistful little child. Willan Blaycke did not quite know what he was doing. He reached his hand across the window-sill towards Victorine; she did not extend hers. "I will come again sooner," he said. "Wilt thou not shake hands?"
Victorine advanced, hesitated, advanced again; it was inimitably done. "The next time, if I know thee better, I might dare," she whispered, and fled like a deer.
"Where hast thou been?" said Jeanne, angrily. "The supper dishes are yet all to wash."
Victorine danced gayly around the kitchen floor. "Talking with the son of thy husband," she said. "He seems to me much cleverer than a magpie."
Jeanne burst out laughing. "Thou witch!" she said, secretly well pleased. "But where didst thou fall upon him? Thou hast not been in the bar-room?"
"Nay, he fell upon me, the rather," replied Victorine, artlessly, "as I was resting me at the window of the long storeroom. He heard me singing, and came there."
"Did he praise thy voice?" asked Jeanne. "He is a brave singer himself."
"Is he?" said Victorine, eagerly. "He did not tell me that. He said my voice was like the voice of a wild bird. And there be birds and birds again, I was minded to tell him, and not all birds make music; but he seemed to me not one to take jests readily."
"So," said Jeanne; "that he is not. Leaves he early in the morning?"
"I think so," replied Victorine. "He did not tell me, but I heard the elder man say to Benoit to have the horses ready at earliest light."
"Thou must serve them again in the morning," said Jeanne. "It will be but the once more."
"Nay," answered Victorine, "I will not."
Something in the girl's tone arrested her aunt's attention. "And why?" she said sharply, looking scrutinizingly at her.
Victorine returned the gaze with one as steady. It was as well, she thought, that there should be an understanding between her aunt and herself soon as late.
"Because he will come again the sooner, Aunt Jeanne, if he sees me no more after to-night." And Victorine gave a little mocking nod with her head, turned towards the dresser piled high with dishes, and began to make a great clatter washing them.
Jeanne was silent. She did not know how to take this.
Victorine glanced up at her mischievously, and laughed aloud. "Better a grape for me than two figs for thee. Dost know the old proverb, Aunt Jeanne? Thou hadst thy figs; I will e'en pluck the grape."
"Bah, child! thou talkest wildly," said Jeanne; "I know not what thou 'rt at."
But she did know very well; only she did not choose to seem to understand. However, as she thought matters over later in the evening, in the solitude of her own room, one thing was clear to her, and that was that it would probably be safe to trust Mademoiselle Victorine to row her own boat; and Jeanne said as much to her father when he inquired of her how matters had sped.
In spite of Victorine's refusal to serve at the breakfast, she had not the least idea of letting Willan go away in the morning without being reminded of her presence. She was up before light, dressed in a pretty pink and white flowered gown, which set off her black hair and eyes well, and made her look as if she were related to an apple-blossom. She watched and listened till she heard the sound of voices and the horses' feet in the courtyard below; then throwing open her casement she leaned out and began to water her flowers on the stairway roof. At the first sound Willan Blaycke looked up and saw her. It was as pretty a picture as a man need wish to see, and Willan gazed his fill at it. The window was so high up in the air that the girl might well be supposed not to see anything which was going on in the courtyard; indeed, she never once looked that way, but went on daintily watering plant after plant, picking off dead leaves, crumpling them up in her fingers and throwing them down as if she were alone in the place; singing, too, softly in a low tone snatches of a song, the words of which went floating away tantalizingly over Willan's head, in spite of all his efforts to hear.
It was a great tribute to Victorine's powers as an actress that it never once crossed Willan's mind that she could possibly know he was looking at her all this time. It was equally a token of another man's estimate of her, that when old Benoit, hearing the singing, looked up and saw her watering her flowers at this unexampled hour, he said under his breath, "Diable!" and then glancing at the face of Willan, who stood gazing up at the window utterly unconscious of the old ostler's presence, said "Diable!" again, but this time with a broad and amused smile.
The fountain leaps as if its nearest goal Were sky, and shines as if its life were light. No crystal prism flashes on our sight Such radiant splendor of the rainbow's whole Of color. Who would dream the fountain stole Its tints, and if the sun no more were bright Would instant fade to its own pallid white? Who dream that never higher than the dole Of its own source, its stream may rise? Thus we See often hearts of men that by love's glow Are sudden lighted, lifted till they show All semblances of true nobility; The passion spent, they tire of purity, And sink again to their own levels low!
The next time Willan Blaycke came to the Golden Pear he did not see Victorine. This was by no device of hers, though if she had considered beforehand she could not better have helped on the impression she had made on him than by letting him go away disappointed, having come hoping to see her. She was away on a visit at the home of Pierre Gaspard the miller, whose eldest daughter Annette was Victorine's one friend in the parish. There was an eldest son, also, Pierre second, on whom Mademoiselle Victorine had cast observant glances, and had already thought to herself that "if nothing else turned up—but there was time enough yet." Not so thought Pierre, who was madly in love with Victorine, and was so put about by her cold and capricious ways with him that he was fast coming to be good for nothing in the mill or on the farm. But he is of no consequence in this account of the career of Mademoiselle, only this,—that if it had not been for him she had not probably been away from the Golden Pear on the occasion of Willan Blaycke's second visit. Pierre had not shown himself at the inn for some weeks, and Victorine was uneasy about him. Spite of her plans about a much finer bird in the bush, she was by no means minded to lose the bird she had in hand. She was too clear-sighted a young lady not to perceive that it would be no bad thing to be ultimately Mistress Gaspard of the mill,—no bad thing if she could not do better, of which she was as yet far from sure. So she had inveigled her aunt into taking the notion into her head that she needed change, and the two had ridden over to Gaspard's for a three days' visit, the very day before Willan arrived.
"I warrant me he was set aback when I did tell him as he alighted that I feared me he would not be well served just at present, as there was no woman about the house," said Victor, chuckling as he told Jeanne the story. "He did give a little start,—not so little but that I saw it well, though he fetched himself up with his pride in a trice, and said loftily: 'I have no doubt all will be sufficient; it is but a bite of supper and a bed that I require. I must go on at daybreak,' But Benoit saw him all the evening pacing back and forth under the pear-tree, and many times looking up at the shut casement of the window where he had seen Victorine standing on the morning when he was last here."
"Did he ask aught about her?" said Jeanne.
"Bah!" said Victor, contemptuously. "Dost take him for a fool? He will be farther gone than he is yet, ere he will let either thee or me see that the girl is aught to him."
"I wish he had found her here," said Jeanne. "It was an ill bit of luck that took her away; and that Pierre, he is like to go mad about her, since these three days under one roof. I knew not he was so daft, or I had not taken her there."
"She were well wed to Pierre Gaspard," said Victor; "mated with one's own degree is best mated, after all. What shall we say if the lad come asking her hand? He will not ask twice, I can tell you that of a Gaspard."
"Trust the girl to keep him from asking till she be ready to say him yea or nay," replied Jeanne. "I know not wherever the child hath learnt such ways with men; surely in the convent she saw none but priests."
"And are not priests men?" sneered Victor, with an evil laugh. "Faith, and I think there is nought which other men teach which they do not teach better!"
"Fie, father! thou shouldst not speak ill of the clergy; it is bad luck," said Jeanne. Jeanne was far honester of nature than either her father or her child; she was not entirely without reverence, and as far as she could, without too much inconvenience, kept good faith with her religion.
When Victorine heard that Willan Blaycke had been at the inn in their absence, she shrugged her pretty shoulders, and said, laughingly, "Eh, but that is good!"
"Why sayest thou so?" replied Jeanne. "I say it is ill."
"And I say it is good," retorted Victorine; and not another word could Jeanne get out of her on the matter.
Victorine was right. As Willan Blaycke rode away from the Golden Pear, he was so vexed with the unexpected disappointment that he was in a mood fit to do some desperate thing. He had tried with all his might to put Victorine's face and voice and sweet little form out of his thoughts, but it was beyond his power. She haunted him by day and by night,—worse by night than by day,—for he dreamed continually of standing just the other side of a window-sill across which Victorine reached snowy little hands and laid them in his, and just as he was about to grasp them the vision faded, and he waked up to find himself alone. Willan Blaycke had never loved any woman. If he had,—if he had had even the least experience in the way of passionate fancies, he could have rated this impression which Victorine had produced on him for what it was worth and no more, and taking counsel of his pride have waited till the discomfort of it should have passed away. But he knew no better than to suppose that because it was so keen, so haunting, it must last forever. He was almost appalled at the condition in which he found himself. It more than equalled all the descriptions which he had read of unquenchable love. He could not eat; he could not occupy himself with any affairs: all business was tedious to him, and all society irksome. He lay awake long hours, seeing the arch black eyes and rosy cheeks and piquant little mouth; worn out by restlessness, he slept, only to see the eyes and cheeks and mouth more vividly. It was all to no purpose that he reasoned with himself,—that he asked himself sternly a hundred times a day,—
"Wilt thou take the granddaughter of Victor Dubois to be the mother of thy children? Is it not enough that thy father disgraced his name for that blood? Wilt thou do likewise?"
The only answer which came to all these questions was Victorine's soft whisper: "Oh, if thou didst but know, sir, how I wish myself safe back in the convent!" and, "Thou seemest to me like the men of whom Sister Clarice did tell me."
"Poor little girl!" he said; "she is of their blood, but not of their sort. Her mother was doubtless a good and pure woman, even though she had not good birth or breeding; and this child hath had good training from the Sisters in the convent. She is of a most ladylike bearing, and has a fine sense of all which is proper and becoming, else would she not so dislike the ways of an inn, and have such fear of the men that gaze on her there."
So touching is the blindness of those blinded by love! It is enough to make one weep sometimes to see it,—to see, as in this instance of Willan Blaycke, an upright, modest, and honest gentleman creating out of the very virtues of his own nature the being whom he will worship, and then clothing this ideal with a bit of common clay, of immodest and ill-behaved flesh, which he hath found ready-made to his hand, and full of the snare of good looks.
When Willan Blaycke rode away this time from the Golden Pear, he was, as we say, in a mood ready to do some desperate thing, he was so vexed and disappointed. What he did do, proved it; he turned his horse and rode straight for Gaspard's mill. The artful Benoit had innocently dropped the remark, as he was holding the stirrup for Willan to mount, that Mistress Jeanne and her niece were at Pierre Gaspard's; that for his part he wished them back,—there was no luck about a house without a woman in it.
Willan Blaycke made some indifferent reply, as if all that were nothing to him, and galloped off. But before he had gone five miles Benoit's leaven worked, and he turned into a short-cut lane he knew which led to the mill. He did not stop to ask himself what he should do there; he simply galloped on towards Victorine. It was only a couple of leagues to the mill, and its old tower and wheel were in sight before he thought of its being near. Then he began to consider what errand he could make; none occurred to him. He reined his horse up to a slow walk, and fell into a reverie,—so deep a one that he did not see what he might have seen had he looked attentively into a copse of poplars on a high bank close to his road,—two young girls sitting on the ground peeling slender willow stems for baskets. It was Annette Gaspard and Victorine; and at the sound of a horse's feet they both leaned forward and looked down into the road.
"Oh, see, Victorine!" Annette cried; "a brave rider goes there. Who can he be? I wonder if he goes to the mill? Perhaps my father will keep him to dinner."
At the first glance Victorine recognized Willan Blaycke, but she gave no sign to her friend that she knew him.
"He sitteth his horse like one asleep," she said, "or in a dream. I call him not a brave rider. He hath forgotten something," she added; "see, he is turning about!" And with keen disappointment the girls saw the horseman wheel suddenly, and gallop back on the road he had come. At the last moment, by a mighty effort, Willan had wrenched his will to the decision that he would not seek Victorine at the mill.
And this was why, when her aunt told her that he had been at the inn during their absence, Victorine shrugged her shoulders, and said with so pleased a laugh, "Eh! that is good." She understood by a lightning intuition all which had happened,—that he had ridden towards the mill seeking her, and had changed his mind at the last, and gone away. But she kept her own counsel, told nobody that she had seen him, and said in her mischievous heart, "He will be back before long."
And so he was; but not even Victorine, with all her confidence in the strength of the hold she had so suddenly acquired on him, could have imagined how soon and with what purpose he would return. On the evening of the sixth day, just at sunset, he appeared, walking with his saddle-bags on his shoulders and leading his horse. The beast limped badly, and had evidently got a sore hurt. Old Benoit was standing in the arched entrance of the courtyard as they approached.
"Marry, but that beast is in a bad way!" he exclaimed, and went to meet them. Benoit loved a horse; and Willan Blaycke's black stallion was a horse to which any man's heart might well go out, so knowing, docile, proud, and swift was the creature, and withal most beautifully made. The poor thing went haltingly enough now, and every few minutes stopped and looked around piteously into his master's face.
"And the man doth look as distressed as the beast," thought Benoit, as he drew near; "it is a good man that so loves an animal." And Benoit warmed toward Willan as he saw his anxious face.
If Benoit had only known! No wonder Willan's face was sorrow-stricken! It was he himself that had purposely lamed the stallion, that he might have plain and reasonable excuse for staying at the Golden Pear some days. He had not meant to hurt the poor creature so much, and his conscience pricked him horribly at every step the horse took. He patted him on his neck, spoke kindly to him, and did all in his power to atone for his cruelty. That all was very little, however, for each step was torture to the beast; his fore feet were nearly bleeding. This was what Willan had done: the day before he had taken off two of the horse's shoes, and then galloped fast over miles of rough and stony road. The horse had borne himself gallantly, and shown no fatigue till nightfall, when he suddenly went lame, and had grown worse in the night, so that Willan had come very near having to lie by at an inn some leagues to the north, where he had no mind to stay. A heavy price he was paying for the delight of looking on Victorine's face, he began to think, as he toiled along on foot, mile after mile, the saddle-bags on his shoulders, and the hot sun beating down on his head; but reach the Golden Pear that day he would, and he did,—almost as footsore as the stallion. Neither master nor beast was wonted to rough ways.
"My horse is sadly lame," Willan said to Benoit as he came up. "He cast two shoes yesterday, and I was forced to ride on, spite of it, for there was no blacksmith on the road I came. I fear me thou canst not shoe him to-night, his feet have grown so sore!"
"No, nor to-morrow nor the day after," cried Benoit, taking up the inflamed feet and looking at them closely. "It was a sin, sir, to ride such a creature unshod; he is a noble steed."
"Nay, I have not ridden a step to-day," answered Willan, "and I am wellnigh as sore as he. We have come all the way from the north boundary,—a matter of some six leagues, I think,—from the inn of Jean Gauvois."
"But he is a farrier himself!" cried Benoit. "How let he the beast go out like this?"
"It was I forbade him to touch the horse," replied the wily Willan. "He did lame a good mare for me once, driving a nail into the quick. I thought the horse would be better to walk this far and get thy more skilful handling. There is not a man in this country, they tell me, can shoe a horse so well as thou. Dost thou not know some secret of healing," he continued, "by which thou canst harden the feet, so that they will be fit to shoe to-morrow?"
Benoit shook his head. "Thy horse hath been too tenderly reared," he said. "A hurt goes harder with him than with our horses. But I will do my best, sir. I doubt not it will inconvenience thee much to wait here till he be well. If thou couldst content thee with a beast sorry to look at, but like the wind to go, we have a nag would carry thee along, and thou couldst leave the stallion till thy return."
"But I come not back this way," replied Willan, strangely ready with his lies, now he had once undertaken the role of a manoeuvrer. "I go far south, even down to the harbors of the sound. I must bide the beast's time now. He hath made time for me many a day, and I do assure you, good Benoit, I love him as if he were my brother."
"Ay," replied the ostler; "so thought I when I saw thee bent under thy saddle-bags and leading the horse by the rein. It's an evil man likes not his beast. We say in Normandy, sir,—
"'Evil master to good beast, Serve him ill at every feast!'"
"So he deserves," replied Willan, heartily; and in his heart he added, "I hope I shall not get my deserts."
Benoit led the poor horse away toward the stables, and Willan entered the house. No one was to be seen. Benoit had forgotten to tell him that no one was at home except Victorine. It was a market-day at St. Urban's; and Victor and Jeanne had gone for the day, and would not be back till late in the evening.
Willan roamed on from room to room,—through the bar-room, the living-room, the kitchen; all were empty, silent. As he retraced his steps he stopped for a second at the foot of the stairs which led from the living-room to the narrow passage-way overhead.
Victorine was in her aunt's room, and heard the steps. "Who is there?" she called. Willan recognized her voice; he considered a second what he should reply.
"Benoit! is it thou?" Victorine called again impatiently; and the next minute she bounded down the stairway, crying, "Why dost thou terrify me so, thou bad Benoit, not answering me when I—" She stopped, face to face with Willan Blaycke, and gave a cry of honest surprise.
"Ah! but is it really thou?" she said, the rosy color mounting all over her face as she recollected how she was attired. She had been asleep all the warm afternoon, and had on only a white petticoat and a short gown of figured stuff, red and white. Her hair was falling over her shoulders. Willan's heart gave a bound as he looked at her. Before he had fairly seen her, she had turned to fly.
"Yes, it is I,—it is I," he called after her. "Wilt thou not come back?"
"Nay," answered Victorine, from the upper stair; "that I may not do, for the house is alone." Victorine was herself now, and was wise enough not to go quite out of sight. She looked entrancing between the dark wooden balustrades, one slender hand holding to them, and the other catching up part of her hair. "When my aunt returns, if she bids me to wait at supper I shall see thee." And Victorine was gone.
"Then sing for me at thy window," entreated Willan.
"I know not the whole of any song," cried Victorine; but broke, as she said it, into a snatch of a carol which seemed to the poor infatuated man at the foot of the stairway like the song of an angel. He hurried out, and threw himself down under the pear-tree where he had lain before. The blossoms had all fallen from the pear-tree now, and through the thinned branches he could see Victorine's window distinctly. She could see him also.
"It would be no hard thing to love such a man as he, methinks," she said to herself as she went on leisurely weaving the thick braids of her hair, and humming a song just low enough for Willan to half hear and half lose the words.
"Once in a hedge a bird went singing, Singing because there was nobody near. Close to the hedge a voice came crying, 'Sing it again! I am waiting to hear. Sing it forever! 'T is sweet to hear.'
"Never again that bird went singing Till it was surer that no one was near. Long in that hedge there was somebody waiting, Crying in vain, 'I am waiting to hear. Sing it again! It was sweet to hear.'"
"I wonder if Sister Clarice's lover had asked her to sing, as Willan Blaycke just now asked me, that she did make this song," thought Victorine. "It hath a marvellous fitness, surely." And she repeated the last three lines.
"Long in that hedge there was somebody waiting, Crying in vain, 'I am waiting to hear. Sing it again! It was sweet to hear.'"
"But I should be silent like the bird, and not sing," she reflected, and paused for a while. Willan listened patiently for a few moments. Then growing impatient, he picked up a handful of turf and flung it up at the window. Victorine laughed to herself as she heard it, but did not sing. Another soft thud against the casement; no reply from Victorine. Then in a moment more, in a rich deep voice, and a tune far sweeter than any Victorine had sung, came these words:—
"Faint and weary toiled a pilgrim, Faint and weary of his load; Sudden came a sweet bird winging Glad and swift across his road.
"'Blessed songster!' cried the pilgrim, 'Where is now the load I bore? I forget it in thy singing; Hearing thee, I faint no more,'
"While he spoke the bird went winging Higher still, and soared away; 'Cruel songster!' cried the pilgrim, 'Cruel songster not to stay!'
"Was the songster cruel? Never! High above some other road Glad and swift he still was singing, Lightening other pilgrims' load!"
Victorine bent her head and listened intently to this song. It touched the best side of her nature.
"Indeed, that is a good song," she said to herself, "but it fitteth not my singing. I make choice for whom I sing; I am not minded so to give pleasure to all the world."
She racked her brains to recall some song which would be as pertinent a reply to Willan's song as his had been to hers; but she could think of none. She was vexed; for the romance of this conversing by means of songs pleased her mightily. At last, half in earnest and half in fun, she struck boldly into a measure on which she would hardly have ventured could she have seen the serious and tender expression on the face of her listener under the pear-tree. As Willan caught line after line of the rollicking measure, his countenance changed.
"An elfish mood is upon her," he thought. "She doth hold herself so safe in her chamber that she may venture on words she had not sung nearer at hand. She is not without mischief in her blood, no doubt." And Willan's own look began to grow less reverential and more eager as he listened.
"The bee is a fool in the summer; He knows it when summer is flown: He might, for all good of his honey, As well have let flowers alone.
"The butterfly, he is the wiser; He uses his wings when they 're grown; He takes his delight in the summer, And dies when the summer is done.
"A heart is a weight in the bosom; A heart can be heavy as stone: Oh, what is the use of a lover? A maiden is better alone."
Victorine was a little frightened herself, as she sang this last stanza. However, she said to herself: "I will bear me so discreetly at supper that the man shall doubt his very ears if he have ever heard me sing such words or not. It is well to perplex a man. The more he be perplexed, the more he meditateth on thee; and the more he meditateth on thee, the more his desire will grow, if it have once taken root."
A very wise young lady in her generation was this graduate of a convent where no men save priests ever came!
Just as Victorine had sung the last verse of her song, she heard the sound of wheels and voices on the road. Victor and Jeanne were coming home. Willan heard the sounds also, and slowly arose from the ground and sauntered into the courtyard. He had an instinct that it would be better not to be seen under the pear-tree.
Great was the satisfaction of Victor and Jeanne when they found that Willan Blaycke was a guest in the inn; still greater when they learned that he would be kept there for at least two days by the lameness of his horse.
"Thou need'st not make great haste with the healing of the beast," said Victor to Benoit; "it might be a good turn to keep the man here for a space." And the master exchanged one significant glance with his man, and saw that he need say no more.
There was no such specific understanding between Jeanne and Victorine. From some perverse and roguish impulse the girl chose to take no counsel in this game she had begun to play; but each woman knew that the other comprehended the situation perfectly.
When Victorine came into the dining-room to serve Willan Blaycke's supper, she looked, to his eyes, prettier than ever. She wore the same white gown and black silk apron with crimson lace she had worn before. Her cheeks and her eyes were bright from the excitement of the serenading and counter-serenading in which she had been engaged. Her whole bearing was an inimitable blending of shyness and archness, tempered by almost reverential respect. Willan Blaycke would have been either more or less than mortal man if he had resisted it. He did not,—he succumbed then and there and utterly to his love for Victorine; and the next morning when breakfast was ready he electrified Victor Dubois by saying, with a not wholly successful attempt at jocularity,—
"Look you! your man tells me I am like to be kept here a matter of some three days or more, before my horse be fit to bear me. Now, it irks me to be the cause of so much trouble, seeing that I am the only traveller in the house. I pray you that I may sit down with you all at meal-times, as is your wont, and that you make no change in the manner of your living by reason of my being in the house. I shall be better pleased so."
There was about as much command as request in Willan's manner; and after some pretended hesitancy Victor yielded, only saying, by way of breaking down the last barrier,—
"My daughter hath desired not to see thee. I know not how she may take this request of thine; it seemeth but reasonable unto me, and it will be that saving of work for her. I think she may consent."
Nothing but her love for Victorine would have induced Jeanne to sit again at meat with her stepson, but for Victorine's sake Jeanne would have done much harder things; and indeed, after the first few moments of awkwardness had passed by, she found that she was much less uncomfortable in Willan's presence than she had anticipated.