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Mrs. Henry Wood
WATCHING ON ST. MARK’S EVE.
THE EBONY BOX.
OUR FIRST TERM AT OXFORD.
“God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men,
And bring them back to heaven again.”
I have called this Featherston’s story, because it was through him that I heard about it—and, indeed, saw a little of it towards the end.
Buttermead, the wide straggling district to which Featherston enjoyed the honour of being doctor-in-ordinary, was as rural as any that can be found in Worcestershire. Featherston’s house stood at the end of the village. Whitney Hall lay close by; as did our school, Dr. Frost’s. In the neighbourhood were scattered a few other substantial residences, some farmers’ homesteads and labourers’ cottages. Featherston was a slim man, with long thin legs and a face grey and careworn. His patients (like the soldier’s steam arm) gave him no rest day or night.
There is no need to go into details here about Featherston’s people. His sister, Mary Ann, lived in his house at one time, and for everyday ailments was almost as good a doctor as he. She was not at alllike him: a merry, talkative, sociable little woman, with black hair and quick, kindly dark eyes.
Our resident French master in those days at Dr. Frost’s was one Monsieur Jules Carimon: a small man with honest blue eyes in his clean-shaven face, and light brown hair cropped close to his head. He was an awful martinet at study, but a genial little gentleman out of it. To the surprise of Buttermead, he and Mary Featherston set up a courtship. It was carried on in sober fashion, as befitted a sober couple who had both left thirty years, and the rest, behind them; and after a summer or two of it they laid plans for their marriage and for living in France.
“I’m sure I don’t know what on earth I shall do amongst the French, Johnny Ludlow,” Mary said to me in her laughing way, when I and Bill Whitney were having tea at Featherston’s one half-holiday, the week before the wedding. “Jules protests they are easier to get on with than the English; not so stiff and formal; but I don’t pay attention to all he says, you know.”
Monsieur Jules Carimon was going to settle down at his native place, Sainteville—a town on the opposite coast, which had a service of English steamers running to it two or three times a-week. He had obtained the post of first classical master at the college there, and meant to eke out his salary (never large in French colleges) by teaching French and mathematics to as many English pupils as he could obtain out of hours. Like other northern French seaport towns, Sainteville had its small colony of British residents.
“We shall get on; I am not afraid,” answered Mary Featherston to a doubting remark made to her by oldMrs. Selby of the Court. “Neither I nor Jules have been accustomed to luxury, and we don’t care for it. We would as soon make our dinner of bread-and-butter and radishes, as of chicken and apple-tart.”
So the wedding took place, and they departed the same day for Sainteville. And of the first two or three years after that there’s nothing good or bad to record.
Selby Court lay just outside Buttermead. Its mistress, an ancient lady now, was related to the Preen family, of whom I spoke in that story which told of the tragical death of Oliver. Lavinia Preen, sister to Oliver’s father, Gervase Preen, but younger, lived with Mrs. Selby as a sort of adopted daughter; and when the death of the father, old Mr. Preen, left nearly all his large family with scarcely any cheese to their bread, Mrs. Selby told Ann Preen, the youngest of them all, that she might come to her also. So Lavinia and Ann Preen lived at the Court, and had no other home.
These two ladies were intimate with Mary Featherston, all three being much attached to one another. When Mary married and left her country for France, the Miss Preens openly resented it, saying she ought to have had more consideration. Did some premonitory instinct prompt that unreasonable resentment? I cannot say. No one can say. But it is certain that had Mary Featherston not gone to live abroad, the ominous chain of events fated to engulf the sisters could not have touched them, and this account, which is a perfectly true one, would never have been written.
For a short time after the marriage they and Mary Carimon exchanged a letter now and then; not often, for foreign postage was expensive; and then it dropped altogether.
Mrs. Selby became an invalid, and died. She left each of the two sisters seventy pounds a-year for life; if the one died, the other was to enjoy the whole; when both were dead, it would lapse back to the Selby estate.
“Seventy pounds a-year!” remarked Ann Preen to her sister. “It does not seem very much, does it, Lavinia? Shall we be able to live upon it?”
They were seated in the wainscoted parlour at Selby Court, talking of the future. The funeral was over, and they must soon leave; for the house was waiting to be done up for the reception of its new master, Mr. Paul Selby, an old bachelor full of nervous fancies.
“We must live upon it, Nancy,” said Lavinia in answer to her.
She was the stronger-minded of the two, and she looked it. A keen, practical woman, of rather more than middle height, with smooth brown hair, pleasant, dark hazel eyes, and a bright glow in her cheeks. Ann (or Nancy, as she was more often called) was smaller and lighter, with a pretty face, a shower of fair ringlets, and mild, light-blue eyes; altogether not unlike a pink-and-white wax doll.
“We should have been worse off, Nancy, had she not left us anything; and sometimes I have feared she might not,” remarked Lavinia cheerfully. “It will be a hundred and forty pounds between us, dear; we can live upon that.”
“Of course we can, if you think so, Lavinia,” said the other, who deemed her elder sister wiser than any one in the world, and revered her accordingly.
“But we should live cheaper abroad than here, I expect,” continued Lavinia. “It’s said money goes twice as far in France as in England. Suppose we were to go over, Nancy, and try? We could come back if we did not like it.”
Nancy’s eyes sparkled. “I think it would be delightful,” she said. “Money go further in France—why, to be sure it does! Aunt Emily is able to live like a princess at Tours, by all accounts. Yes, yes, Lavinia, let us try France!”
One fine spring morning the Miss Preens packed up their bag and baggage and started for the Continent. They went direct to Tours, intending to make that place their pied-à-terre, as the French phrase it; at any rate, for a time. It was not, perhaps, the wisest thing they could have done.
For Mrs. Magnus, formerly Emily Preen, and their late father’s sister, did not welcome them warmly. She lived in style herself, one of the leading stars in the society of Tours; and she did not at all like that two middle-aged nieces, of straitened means, should take up their abode in the next street. So Mrs. Magnus met her nieces with the assurance that Tours would not do for them; it was too expensive a place; they would be swamped in it. Mrs. Magnus was drawing near to the close of her life then; had she known it, she might have been kinder, and let them remain; but she was not able to foresee the hour of that great event which must happen to us all anymore than other people are. Oliver Preen was with her then, revelling in the sunny days which were flitting away on gossamer wings.
“Lavinia, do you think we can stay at Tours?”
The Miss Preens had descended at a fourth-rate hotel, picked out of the guide-book. When Ann asked this question, they were sitting after dinner in the table d’hôte room, their feet on the sanded floor. Sanded floors were quite usual at that time in many parts of France.
“Stay here to put up with Aunt Emily’s pride and insolence!” quickly answered Miss Preen. “No. I will tell you what I have done, Ann. I wrote yesterday to Mary Carimon, asking her about Sainteville; whether she thinks it will suit us, and so on. As soon as her answer comes—she’s certain to say yes—we will go, dear, and leave Mrs. Magnus to her grandeur. And, once we are safe away,I shall write her a letter,” added Lavinia, in decisive tones; “a letter which she won’t like.”
Madame Carimon’s answer came by return of post. It was as cordial as herself. Sainteville would be the very place for them, she said, and she should count the hours until they were there.
The Miss Preens turned their backs upon Tours, shaking its dust off their shoes. Lavinia had a little nest of accumulated money, so was at ease in that respect. And when the evening of the following day the railway terminus at Sainteville was reached, the pleasant, smiling face of Mary Carimon was the first they saw outside the barrière. She must have been nearly forty now, but she did not look a day older than when she had left Buttermead. Miss Laviniawas a year or two older than Mary; Miss Ann a year or two younger.
“You must put up at the Hôtel des Princes,” remarked Madame Carimon. “It is the only really good one in the town. They won’t charge you too much; my husband has spoken to the landlady. And you must spend to-morrow with me.”
The hotel omnibus was waiting for them and other passengers, the luggage was piled on the roof, and Madame Carimon accompanied them to the hotel. A handsome hotel, the sisters thought; quite another thing from the one at Tours. Mary Carimon introduced them to the landlady, Madame Podevin, saw them seated down to tea and a cold fowl, and then left for the night.
With Sainteville the Miss Preens were simply charmed. It was a fresh, clean town, with wide streets, and good houses and old families, and some bright shops. The harbour was large, and the pier extended out to the open sea.
“I should like to live here!” exclaimed Miss Lavinia, sitting down at Madame Carimon’s, in a state of rapture. “I never saw such a nice town, or such a lovely market.”
They had been about all the morning with Madame Carimon. It was market-day, Wednesday. The market was held on the Grande Place; and the delicious butter, the eggs, the fresh vegetables, the flowers and the poultry, took Miss Lavinia’s heart by storm. Nancy was more taken with the picturesque market-women, in their white caps and long gold ear-rings. Other ladies were doing their marketing as well as Madame Carimon. She spoke to most ofthem, in French or in English, as the case might be. Under the able tuition of her husband, she talked French fluently now.
Madame Carimon’s habitation—very nice, small and compact—was in the Rue Pomme Cuite. The streets have queer names in some of these old French towns. It was near the college, which was convenient for Monsieur Carimon. Here they lived, with their elderly servant, Pauline. The same routine went on daily in the steady little domicile from year’s end to year’s end.
“Jules goes to the college at eight o’clock every week-day, after a cup of coffee and a petit pain,” said madame to her guests, “and he returns at five to dinner. He takes his déjeûner in the college at twelve, and I take mine alone at home. On Sundays he has no duty: we attend the French Protestant Church in a morning, dine at one o’clock, and go for a walk in the afternoon.”
“You have no children, Mary?”
Mary Carimon’s lively face turned sad as she answered: “There was one little one; she stayed with us six months, and then God took her. I wrote to you of it, you know, Lavinia. No, we have not any children. Best not, Jules says; and I agree with him. They might only leave us when we have learnt to love them; and that’s a trial hard to bear. Best as it is.”
“I’m sure I should never learn to speak French, though we lived here for a century,” exclaimed Miss Lavinia. “Only to hear you jabbering to your servant, Mary, quite distracts one’s ears.”
“Yes, you would. You would soon pick up enough to be understood in the shops and at market.”
At five o’clock, home came Monsieur Carimon. He welcomed the Miss Preens with honest, genuine pleasure, interspersed with a little French ceremony; making them about a dozen bows apiece before he met the hands held out to him.
They had quite a gala dinner. Soup to begin with—broth, the English ladies inwardly pronounced it—and then fish. A small cod, bought by Madame Carimon at the fish-market in the morning, with oyster sauce. Ten sous she had given for the cod, for she knew how to bargain now, and six sous for a dozen oysters, as large as a five-franc piece. This was followed by a delicious little fricandeau of veal, and that by a tarte à la crême from the pastrycook’s. She told her guests unreservedly what all the dishes cost, to show them how reasonably people might live at Sainteville.
Over the coffee, after dinner, the question of their settling in the place was fully gone into, for the benefit of Monsieur Carimon’s opinions, who gave them in good English.
“Depend upon it, Lavinia, you could not do better,” remarked Mary Carimon. “If you cannot make your income do here, you cannot anywhere.”
“We want to make it do well; not to betray our poverty, but to be able to maintain a fairly good appearance,” said Lavinia. “You understand me, I am sure, monsieur.”
“But certainly, mademoiselle,” he answered; “it is what we all like to do at Sainteville, I reckon.”
“And can do, if we are provident,” added madame. “French ways are not English ways. Our own income is small, Lavinia, yet we put by out of it.”
“A fact that goes without saying,” confirmed the pleasant little man. “If we did not put by, where would my wife be when I am no longer able to work?”
“Provisions being so cheap—— What did you say, Nancy?” asked Madame Carimon, interrupting herself.
“I was going to say that I could live upon oysters, and should like to,” replied Nancy, shaking back her flaxen curls with a laugh. “Half-a-dozen of those great big oysters would make me a lovely dinner any day—and the cost would be only three halfpence.”
“And only fivepence the cost of that beautiful fish,” put in her sister. “In Sainteville our income would amply suffice.”
“It seems to me that it would, mesdemoiselles,” observed Monsieur Carimon. “Three thousand five hundred francs yearly! We French should think it a sufficient sum. Doubtless much would depend upon the way in which you laid it out.”
“What should we have to pay for lodgings, Mary?” inquired Lavinia. “Just a nice sitting-room and two small bedrooms; or a large room with two beds in it; and to be waited on?”
“Oh, you won’t find that at Sainteville,” was the unexpected answer. “Nobody lets lodgings English fashion: it’s not the custom over here. You can find a furnished apartment, but the people will not wait upon you. There is always a little kitchen let with the rooms, and you must have your own servant.”
It was the first check the ladies had received. They sat thinking. “Dear me!” exclaimed Nancy. “No lodgings!”
“Would the apartments you speak of be very dear?” asked Lavinia.
“That depends upon the number of rooms and the situation,” replied Madame Carimon. “I cannot call to mind just now any small apartment that is vacant. If you like, we will go to-morrow and look about.”
It was so arranged. And little Monsieur Carimon attended the ladies back to the Hôtel des Princes at the sober hour of nine, and bowed them into the porte cochère with two sweeps of his hat, wishing them the good-evening and the very good-night.
Thursday morning. Nancy Preen awoke with a sick headache, and could not get up. But in the afternoon, when she was better, they went to Mary Carimon’s, and all three set out to look for an apartment—not meeting with great success.
All they saw were too large, and priced accordingly. There was one, indeed, in the Rue Lamartine, which suited as to size, but the rooms were inconvenient and stuffy; and there was another small one on the Grande Place, dainty and desirable, but the rent was very high. Madame Carimon at once offered the landlord half-price, French custom: she dealt at his shop for her groceries. No, no, he answered; his apartment was the nicest in the town for its size, as mesdames saw, and it was in the best situation—and not a single sou would the worthy grocer abate.
They were growing tired, then; and five o’clock, the universal hour at Sainteville for dinner, was approaching.
“Come round to me after dinner, and we will talk it over,” said Mary Carimon, when they parted. “I will give you a cup of tea.”
They dined at the table d’hôte, which both of them thought charming, and then proceeded to the Rue Pomme Cuite. Monsieur Carimon was on the point of going out, to spend an hour at the Café Pillaud, but he put down his hat to wait awhile, out of respect to the ladies. They told him about not having found an apartment to suit them.
“Of course we have not searched all parts of the town, only the most likely ones,” said Madame Carimon. “There are large apartments to be had, but no small ones. We can search again to-morrow.”
“I suppose there’s not a little house to be had cheap, if we cannot find an apartment?” cried Miss Nancy, who was in love with Sainteville, and had set her heart upon remaining there.
“Tiens,” quickly spoke Monsieur Carimon in French to his wife, “there’s the Petite Maison Rouge belonging to Madame Veuve Sauvage, in the Place Ronde. It is still to let: I saw the affiche in the shop window to-day. What do you think of it, Marie?”
Madame Carimon did not seem to know quite what to think. She looked at her husband, then at the eager faces of her two friends; but she did not speak.
About half-way down the Rue Tessin, a busy street leading to the port, was a wide opening, giving on to the Place Ronde. The Place Ronde agreed with its name, for it was somewhat in form of a horseshoe.Some fifteen or sixteen substantial houses were built round it, each having a shop for its basement; and trees, green and feathery, were scattered about, affording a slight though pleasant shelter from the hot sun in summer weather.
The middle house at the bottom of the Place Ronde, exactly facing the opening from the Rue Tessin, was a very conspicuous house indeed, inasmuch as it was painted red, whilst the other houses were white. All of them had green persienne shutters to the upper windows. The shop, a large one, belonging to this red house was that of the late Monsieur Jean Sauvage, “Marchand de Vin en gros et en détail,” as the announcement over his door used to run in the later years of his life. But when Jean Sauvage commenced business, in that same shop, it was only as a retail vendor. Casting about in his mind one day for some means by which his shop might be distinguished from other wine-shops and attract customers, he hit upon the plan of painting the house red. No sooner thought of than done. A painter was called, who converted the white walls into a fiery vermilion, and stretched a board across the upper part, between the windows of the first and second floors, on which appeared in large letters “A la Maison Rouge.”
Whether this sort of advertisement drew the public, or whether it might have been the sterling respectability and devotion to business of Monsieur Sauvage, he got on most successfully. The Marchand en détail became also Marchand en gros, and in course of time he added liqueurs to his wines. No citizen of Sainteville was more highly esteemed than he, both as a man and a tradesman. Since his death the business had beencarried on by his widow, aided by the two sons, Gustave and Emile. Latterly Madame Veuve Sauvage had given up all work to them; she was now in years, and had well earned her rest. They lived in the rooms over the shop, which were large and handsome. In former days, when the energies of herself and her husband were chiefly devoted to acquiring and saving money, they had let these upper rooms for a good sum yearly. Old Madame Sauvage might be seen any day now sitting at a front-window, looking out upon the world between her embroidered white curtains.
The door of this prosperous shop was between the two windows. The one window displayed a few bottles of wine, most of them in straw cases; in the other window were clear flacons of liqueurs: chartreuse, green and yellow; curaçoa, warm and ruby; eau de vie de Danzick, with its fluttering gold leaf; and many other sorts.
However, it is not with the goods of Madame Veuve Sauvage that we have to do, but with her premises. Standing in front of the shop, as if coveting a bottle of that choice wine for to-day’s dinner, or an immediate glass of delicious liqueur, you may see on your right hand, but to the left of the shop, the private door of the house. On the other side the shop is also a door which opens to a narrow entry. The entry looks dark, even in the mid-day sun, for it is pretty long, extending down a portion of the side of the Maison Rouge, which is a deep house, and terminating in a paved yard surrounded by high buildings. At the end of the yard is a small dwelling, with two modern windows, one above the other. Near theunder window is the entrance-door, painted oak colour, with a brass knob, a bell-wire with a curious handle, and a knocker. This little house the late Monsieur Sauvage had also caused to be converted into a red one, the same as the larger.
In earlier days, when Jean Sauvage and his wife were putting their shoulders to the wheel, they had lived in the little house with their children; the two sons and the daughter, Jeanne. Jeanne Sauvage married early and very well, an avocat. But since they had left it, the house in the yard seemed to have been, as the Widow Sauvage herself expressed it, unlucky. The first of the tenants had died there; the second had disappeared—decamped in fact, to avoid paying rent and other debts; the third had moved into a better house; and the fourth, an old widow lady, had also died, owing a year’s rent to Madame Sauvage, and leaving no money to pay it.
It was of this small dwelling, lying under the shadow of the Maison Rouge, that Monsieur Carimon had thought. Turning to the Miss Preens, he gave them briefly a few particulars, and said he believed the house was to be had on very reasonable terms.
“What do you call it?” exclaimed Lavinia. “The little red house?”
“Yes, we call it so,” said Monsieur Carimon. “Emile Sauvage was talking of it to me the other evening at the café, saying they would be glad to have it tenanted.”
“I fear our good friends here would find it dull,” remarked Madame Carimon to him. “It is in so gloomy a situation, you know, Jules.”
“Mon amie, I do not myself see how that signifies,” said he in reply. “If your house is comfortable inside, does it matter what it looks out upon?”
“Very true,” assented Miss Lavinia, whose hopes had gone up again. “But this house may not be furnished, Mary.”
“It is partly furnished,” said Madame Carimon. “When the old lady who was last in it died, they had to take her furniture for the rent. It was not much, I have heard.”
“We should not want much, only two of us,” cried Miss Ann eagerly. “Do let us go to look at it to-morrow!”
On the following day, Friday, the Miss Preens went to the Place Ronde, piloted by Mary Carimon. They were struck with admiration at the Maison Rouge, all a fiery glow in the morning sun, and a novelty to English eyes. Whilst Madame Carimon went into the shop to explain and ask for the key, the sisters gazed in at the windows. Lying on the wine-bottles was a small black board on which was written in white letters, “Petite Maison à louer.”
Monsieur Gustave Sauvage, key in hand, saluted the ladies in English, which he spoke fairly well, and accompanied them to view the house. The sun was very bright that day, and the confined yard did not look so dull as at a less favourable time; and perhaps the brilliant red of the little house, at which Nancy laughed, imparted a cheerfulness to it. Monsieur Gustave opened the door with a latch-key, drew back, and waited for them to enter.
The first to do so, or to attempt to do so, was Miss Preen. But no sooner had she put one foot over thethreshold than she drew back with a start, somewhat discomposing the others by the movement.
“What is it, Lavinia?” inquired Ann.
“Something seemed to startle me, and throw me backward!” exclaimed Lavinia Preen, regaining her breath. “Perhaps it was the gloom of the passage: it is very dark.”
“Pardon, mesdames,” spoke Monsieur Gustave politely. “If the ladies will forgive my entering before them, I will open the salon door.”
The passage was narrow. The broad shoulders of Monsieur Gustave almost touched the wall on either side as he walked along. Almost at the other end of it, on his left hand, was the salon door; he threw it open, and a little light shone forth. The passage terminated in a small square recess. At the back of this was fixed a shallow marble slab for holding things, above which was a cupboard let into the wall. On the right of the recess was the staircase; and opposite the staircase the kitchen-door, the kitchen being behind the salon.
The salon was nice when they were in it; the paint was fresh, the paper light and handsome. It was of good size, and its large window looked to the front. The kitchen opened upon a small back-yard, furnished with a pump and a shed for wood or coal. On the floor above were two very good chambers, one behind the other. Opposite these, on the other side of the passage, was another room, not so large, but of fair size. It was apparently built out over some part of the next-door premises, and was lighted by a skylight. All the rooms were fresh and good, and the passage had a window at the end.
Altogether it was not an inconvenient abode for people who did not go in for show. The furniture was plain, clean and useful, but it would have to be added to. There were no grates, not even a cooking-stove in the kitchen. It was very much the Sainteville custom at that period for tenants to provide grates for themselves, plenty of which could be bought or hired for a small sum. An easy-chair or two would be needed; tea-cups and saucers and wine-glasses; and though, there were washing-stands, these contained no jugs or basins; and there were no sheets or tablecloths or towels, no knives or forks, no brooms or brushes, and so on.
“There is only this one sitting-room, you perceive,” remarked Madame Carimon, as they turned about, looking at the salon again, after coming downstairs.
“Yes, that’s a pity, on account of dining,” replied Miss Nancy.
“One of our tenants made a pretty salon of the room above this, and this the salle à manger,” replied Monsieur Gustave. “Mesdames might like to do the same, possibly?”
He had pointedly addressed Miss Lavinia, near whom he stood. She did not answer. In fact—it was a very curious thing, but a fact—Miss Lavinia had not spoken a word since she entered. She had gone through the house taking in its features in complete silence, just as if that shock at the door had scared away her speech.
The rent asked by Monsieur Gustave, acting for his mother, was very moderate indeed—twenty pounds a-year, including the use of the furniture. There would be no taxes to pay, he said; absolutely none;the taxes of this little house, being upon their premises, were included in their own. But to ensure this low rental, the house must be taken for five years.
“Of course we will take it—won’t we, Lavinia?” cried Miss Ann in a loud whisper. “Only twenty pounds a-year! Just think of it!”
“Sir,” Miss Lavinia said to Monsieur Gustave, speaking at last, “the house would suit us in some respects, especially as regards rent. But we might find it too lonely: and I should hardly like to be bound for five years.”
All that was of course for mesdames’ consideration, he frankly responded. But he thought that if the ladies were established in it with their ménage about them, they would not find it lonely.
“We will give you an answer to-morrow or Monday,” decided Miss Lavinia.
They went about the town all that day with Madame Carimon; but nothing in the shape of an apartment could be found to suit them. Madame invited them again to tea in the evening. And by that time they had decided to take the house. Nancy was wild about it. What with the change from the monotony of their country house to the bright and busy streets, the gay outdoor life, the delights of the table d’hôte, Ann Preen looked upon Sainteville as an earthly paradise.
“The house is certainly more suited to you than anything else we have seen,” observed Madame Carimon. “I have nothing to say against the Petite Maison Rouge, except its dull situation.”
“Did it strike you, Mary, apart from its situation, as being gloomy?” asked Lavinia.
“No. Once you are in the rooms they are cheerful enough.”
“It did me. Gloomy, with a peculiar gloom, you understand. I’m sure the passage was dark as night. It must have been its darkness that startled me as we were going in.”
“By the way, Lavinia, what was the matter with you then?” interrupted her sister.
“I don’t know, Nancy; I said at the time I did not know. With my first step into the passage, some horror seemed to meet me and drive me backward.”
“Some horror!” repeated Nancy.
“I seemed to feel it so. I had still the glare of the streets and the fiery red walls in my eyes, which must have caused the house passage to look darker than it ought. That was all, I suppose—but it turned me sick with a sort of fear; sick and shivery.”
“That salon may be made as pretty a room as any in Sainteville,” remarked Madame Carimon. “Many of the English residents here have only one salon in their apartments. You see, we don’t go in for ceremony; France is not like England.”
On the morrow the little house under the wing of the Maison Rouge was secured by the Miss Preens. They took it in their joint names for five years. To complete the transaction they were ushered upstairs to the salon and presence of Madame Veuve Sauvage—a rather stately looking old lady, attired in a voluminous black silk robe and a mourning cap of fine muslin. Madame, who could not speak a syllable of English, conversed graciously with her future tenants through the interpretation of Mary Carimon, offeringto be useful to them in any way she could. Lavinia and Ann Preen both signed the bail, or agreement, and Madame Veuve Sauvage likewise signed it; by virtue of which she became their landlady, and they her tenants of the little house for five years. Madame Carimon, and a shopman who came upstairs for the purpose, signed as witnesses.
Wine and the little cakes called pistolets were then introduced; and so the bargain was complete.
Oh if some kindly spirit from the all-seeing world above could only have whispered a hint to those ill-fated sisters of what they were doing!—had only whispered a warning in time to prevent it! Might not that horror, which fell upon Lavinia as she was about to pass over the door-sill, have served her as such? But who regards these warnings when they come to us? Who personally applies them? None.
Having purchased or hired the additional things required, the Miss Preens took possession of their house. Nancy had the front bed-chamber, which Lavinia thought rather the best, and so gave it up to her; Lavinia took the back one. The one opposite, with the skylight, remained unoccupied, as their servant did not sleep in the house. Not at all an uncommon custom at Sainteville.
An excellent servant had been found for them in the person of Flore Pamart, a widow, who was honest, cooked well, and could talk away in English; all recommendations that the ladies liked. Flore let herself in with a latch-key before breakfast, and left as soon after five o’clock in the evening as she could get the dinner things removed. Madame Flore Pamart had one little boy named Dion, who went toschool by day, but was at home night and morning; for which reason his mother could only take a daily service.
Thus the Miss Preens became part of the small colony of English at Sainteville. They took sittings in the English Protestant Church, which was not much more than a room; and they subscribed to the casino on the port when it opened for the summer season, spending many an evening there, listening to the music, watching the dancing when there was any, and chattering with the acquaintances they met. They were well regarded, these new-comers, and they began to speak French after a fashion. Now and then they went out to a soirée; once in a way gave one in return. Very sober soirées indeed were those of Sainteville; consisting (as Sam Weller might inform us) of tea at seven o’clock with, hot galette, conversation, cake at ten (gâteau Suisse or gâteau au rhum), and a glass of Picardin wine.
They were pleased with the house, once they had settled down in it, and never a shadow of regret crossed either of them for having taken the Petite Maison Rouge.
In this way about a twelvemonth wore on.
It was a fine morning at the beginning of April; the sun being particularly welcome, as Sainteville had latterly been favoured with a spell of ill-natured, bitter east winds. About eleven o’clock, Miss Preen and hersister turned out of their house to take a walk on the pier—which they liked to do most days, wind and weather permitting. In going down the Rue des Arbres, they were met by a fresh-looking little elderly gentleman, with rather long white hair, and wearing a white necktie. He stopped to salute the ladies, bowing ceremoniously low to each of them. It was Monsieur le Docteur Dupuis, a kindly man of skilful reputation, who had now mostly, though not altogether, given up practice to his son, Monsieur Henri Dupuis. Miss Lavinia had a little acquaintance with the doctor, and took occasion to ask him news of the public welfare; for there was raging in the town the malady called “la grippe,” which, being interpreted, means influenza.
It was not much better at present, Monsieur Dupuis answered; but this genial sunshine he hoped would begin to drive it away; and, with another bow, he passed onward.
The pier was soon reached, and they enjoyed their walk upon it. The sunlight glinted on the rather turbulent waves of the sea in the distance, but there was not much breeze to be felt on land. When nearing the end of the pier their attention was attracted to a fishing-boat, which was tumbling about rather unaccountably in its efforts to make the harbour.
“It almost looks from here as though it had lost its rudder, Nancy,” remarked Miss Lavinia.
They halted, and stood looking over the side at the object of interest; not particularly noticing that a gentleman stood near them, also looking at the same through an opera-glass. He was spare, of middle height and middle age; his hair was grey, his facepale and impassive; the light over-coat he wore was of fashionable English cut.
“Oh, Lavinia, look, look! It is coming right on to the end of the pier,” cried Ann Preen.
“Hush, Nancy, don’t excite yourself,” said Miss Lavinia, in lowered tones. “It will take care not to do that.”
The gentleman gave a wary glance at them. He saw two ladies dressed alike, in handsome black velvet mantles, and bonnets with violet feathers; by which he judged them to be sisters, though there was no resemblance in face. The elder had clear-cut features, a healthy colour, dark brown hair, worn plain, and a keen, sensible expression. The other was fair, with blue eyes and light ringlets.
“Pardon me,” he said, turning to them, and his accent was that of a gentleman. “May I offer you the use of my glasses?”
“Oh, thank you!” exclaimed Nancy, in a light tone bordering on a giggle; and she accepted the glasses. She was evidently pleased with the offer and with the stranger.
Lavinia, on the contrary, was not. The moment she saw his full face she shrank from it—shrank from him. The feeling might have been as unaccountable as that which came over her when she had been first entering the Petite Maison Rouge; but it was there. However, she put it from her, and thanked him.
“I don’t think I see so well with the glasses as without them; it seems all a mist,” remarked Nancy, who was standing next the stranger.
“They are not properly focused for you. Allow me,” said he, as he took the glasses from her to alterthem. “Young eyes need a less powerful focus than elderly ones like mine.”
He spoke in a laughing tone; Nancy, fond of compliments, giggled outright this time. She was approaching forty; he might have been ten years older. They continued standing there, watching the fishing-boat, and exchanging remarks at intervals. When it had made the harbour without accident, the Miss Preens wished him good-morning, and went back down the pier; he took off his hat to them, and walked the other way.
“What a charming man!” exclaimed Nancy, when they were at a safe distance.
“I don’t like him,” dissented Lavinia.
“Not like him!” echoed the other in surprise. “Why, Lavinia, his manners are delightful. I wonder who he is?”
When nearly home, in turning into the Place Ronde, they met an English lady of their acquaintance, the wife of Major Smith. She had been ordering a dozen of vin Picardin from the Maison Rouge. As they stood talking together, the gentleman of the pier passed up the Rue de Tessin. He lifted his hat, and they all, including Mrs. Smith, bowed.
“Do you know him?” quickly asked Nancy, in a whisper.
“Hardly that,” answered Mrs. Smith. “When we were passing the Hôtel des Princes this morning, a gentleman turned out of the courtyard, and he and my husband spoke to one another. The major said to me afterwards that he had formerly been in the—I forget which—regiment. He called him Mr. Fennel.”
Now, as ill-fortune had it, Miss Preen found herself very poorly after she got home. She began to sneeze and cough, and thought she must have taken cold through standing on the pier to watch the vagaries of the fishing-smack.
“I hope you are not going to have the influenza!” cried Nancy, her blue eyes wide with concern.
But the influenza it proved to be. Miss Preen seemed about to have it badly, and lay in bed the next day. Nancy proposed to send Flore for Monsieur Dupuis, but Lavinia said she knew how to treat herself as well as he could treat her.
The next day she was no better. Poor Nancy had to go out alone, or to stay indoors. She did not like doing the latter at all; it was too dull; her own inclination would have led her abroad all day long and every day.
“I saw Captain Fennel on the pier again,” said she to her sister that afternoon, when she was making the tea at Lavinia’s bedside, Flore having carried up the tray.
“I hope you did not talk to him, Ann,” spoke the invalid, as well as she could articulate.
“I talked a little,” said Nancy, turning hot, conscious that she had gossiped with him for three-quarters-of-an-hour. “He stopped to speak to me; I could not walk on rudely.”
“Any way, don’t talk to him again, my dear. I do not like that man.”
“What is there to dislike in him, Lavinia?”
“That I can’t say. His countenance is not a good one; it is shifty and deceitful. He is a man you could never trust.”
“I’m sure I’ve heard you say the same of other people.”
“Because I can read faces,” returned Lavinia.
“Oh—well—I consider Captain Fennel’s is a handsome face,” debated Nancy.
“Why do you call him ‘Captain’?”
“He calls himself so,” answered Nancy. “I suppose it was his rank in the army when he retired. They retain it afterwards by courtesy, don’t they, Lavinia?”
“I am not sure. It depends upon whether they retire in rotation or sell out, I fancy. Mrs. Smith said the major called him Mr. Fennel, and he ought to know. There, I can’t talk any more, Nancy, and the man is nothing to us, that we need discuss him.”
La grippe had taken rather sharp hold of Lavinia Preen, and she was upstairs for ten days. On the first afternoon she went down to the salon, Captain Fennel called, very much to her surprise; and, also to her surprise, he and Nancy appeared to be pretty intimate.
In point of fact, they had met every day, generally upon the pier. Nancy had said nothing about it at home. She was neither sly nor deceitful in disposition; rather notably simple and unsophisticated; but, after Lavinia’s reproof the first time she told about meeting him, she would not tell again.
Miss Preen behaved coolly to him; which he would not appear to see. She sat over the fire, wrapped in a shawl, for it was a cold afternoon. He stayed only a little time, and put his card down on the slab near the stairs when he left. Lavinia had it brought to her.
“Mr. Edwin Fennel.”
“Then he is not Captain Fennel,” she observed. “But, Nancy, what in the world could have induced the man to call here? And how is it you seem to be familiar with him?”
“I have met him out-of-doors, sometimes, while you were ill,” said Nancy. “As to his calling here—he came, I suppose, out of politeness. There’s no harm in it, Lavinia.”
Miss Lavinia did not say there was. But she disliked the man too much to favour his acquaintanceship. Instinct warned her against him.
How little was she prepared for what was to follow! Before she was well out-of-doors again, before she had been anywhere except to church, Nancy gave her a shock. With no end of simperings and blushings, she confessed that she had been asked to marry Captain Fennel.
Had Miss Lavinia Preen been herself politely asked to marry a certain gentleman popularly supposed to reside underground, she would not have been much more indignantly startled. Perhaps “frightened” would be the better word for it.
“But—you would not, Nancy!” she gasped, when she found her voice.
“I don’t know,” simpered foolish Nancy. “I—I—think him very nice and gentlemanly, Lavinia.”
Lavinia came out of her fright sufficiently to reason. She strove to show Nancy how utterly unwise such a step would be. They knew nothing of Captain Fennel or his antecedents; to become his wife might just be courting misery and destruction. Nancy ceased to argue; and Lavinia hoped she had yielded.
Both sisters kept a diary. But for that fact, andalso that the diaries were preserved, Featherston could not have arrived at the details of the story so perfectly. About this time, a trifle earlier or later, Ann Preen wrote as follows in hers:
“April 16th.—I met Captain Fennel on the pier again this morning. I do think he goes there because he knows he may meet me. Lavinia is not out yet; she has not quite got rid of that Grip, as they stupidly call it here. I’m sure it has gripped her. We walked quite to the end of the pier, and then I sat down on the edge for a little while, and he stood talking to me. I do wish I could tell Lavinia of these meetings; but she was so cross the first day I met him, and told her of it, that I don’t like to. Captain Fennel lent me his glasses as usual, and I looked at the London steamer, which was coming in. Somehow we fell to talking of the Smiths; he said they were poor, had not much more than the major’s half-pay. ‘Not like you rich people, Miss Nancy,’ he said—he thinks that’s my right name. ‘Your income is different from theirs.’ ‘Oh,’ I screamed out, ‘why, it’s only a hundred and forty pounds a-year!’ ‘Well,’ he answered, smiling, ‘that’s a comfortable sum for a place like this; five francs will buy as much at Sainteville as half-a-sovereign will in England.’ Which is pretty nearly true.”
Skipping a few entries of little importance, we come to another:
“May 1st, and such a lovely day!—It reminds me of one May-day at home, when the Jacks-in-the-green were dancing on the grass-plot before the Court windows at Buttermead, and Mrs. Selby sat watching them, as pleased as they were, saying she should liketo dance, too, if she could only go first to the mill to be ground young again. Jane and Edith Peckham were spending the day with us. It was just such a day as this, warm and bright; light, fleecy clouds flitting across the blue sky. I wish Lavinia were out to enjoy it! but she is hardly strong enough for long walks yet, and only potters about, when she does get out, in the Rue des Arbres or the Grande Place, or perhaps over to see Mary Carimon.
“I don’t know what to do. I lay awake all last night, and sat moping yesterday, thinking what I could do. Edwin wants me to marry him; I told Lavinia, and she absolutely forbids it, saying I should rush upon misery. He says I should be happy as the day’s long. I feel like a distracted lunatic, not knowing which of them is right, or which opinion I ought to yield to. I have obeyed Lavinia all my life; we have never had a difference before; her wishes have been mine, and mine have been hers. But I can’t see why she need have taken up this prejudice against him, for I’m sure he’s more like an angel than a man; and, as he whispers to me, Nancy Fennel would be a prettier name than Nancy Preen. I said to him to-day, ‘My name is Ann, not really Nancy.’ ‘My dear,’ he answered, ‘I shall always call you Nancy; I love the simple name.’
“I no longer talk about him to Lavinia, or let her suspect that we still meet on the pier. It would make her angry, and I can’t bear that. I dare not hint to her what Edwin said to-day—that he should take matters into his own hands. He means to go over to Dover,viâCalais; stay at Dover a fortnight, as the marriage law requires, and then come back to fetchme; and after the marriage has taken place we shall return here to live.
“Oh dear, what am I to do? It will be a dreadful thing to deceive Lavinia; and it will be equally dreadful to lose him. He declares that if I do not agree to this he shall set sail for India (where he used to be with his regiment), and never, never see me again. Good gracious! Never to see me again!
“The worst is, he wants to go off to Dover at once, giving one no time for consideration! Must I say Yes, or No? The uncertainty shakes me to pieces. He laughed to-day when I said something of this, assuring me Lavinia’s anger would pass away like a summer cloud when I was his wife; that sisters had no authority over one another, and that Lavinia’s opposition arose from selfishness only, because she did not want to lose me. ‘Risk it, Nancy,’ said he; ‘she will receive you with open arms when I bring you back from Dover.’ If I could only think so! Now and then I feel inclined to confide my dilemma to Mary Carimon, and ask her opinion, only that I fear she might tell Lavinia.”
Mr. Edwin Fennel quitted Sainteville. When he was missed people thought he might have gone for good. But one Saturday morning some time onwards, when the month of May was drawing towards its close, Miss Lavinia, out with Nancy at market, came full upon Captain Fennel in the crowd on the Grande Place. He held out his hand.
“I thought you had left Sainteville, Mr. Fennel,” she remarked, meeting his hand and the sinister look in his face unwillingly.
“Got back this morning,” he said; “travelled by night. Shall be leaving again to-day or to-morrow. How are you, Miss Nancy?”
Lavinia pushed her way to the nearest poultry stall. “Will you come here, Ann?” she said. “I want to choose a fowl.”
She began to bargain, half in French, half in English, with the poultry man, all to get rid of that other man, and she looked round, expecting Nancy had followed her. Nancy had not stirred from the spot near the butter-baskets: she and Captain Fennel had their heads together, he talking hard and fast.
They saw Lavinia looking at them; looking angry, too. “Remember,” impressively whispered Captain Fennel to Nancy: and, lifting his hat to Lavinia, over the white caps of the market-women, he disappeared across the Place.
“I wonder what that man has come back for?” cried Miss Preen, as Nancy reached her—not that she had any suspicion. “And I wonder you should stay talking with him, Nancy!”
Nancy did not answer.
Sending Flore—who had attended them with her market-basket—home with the fowl and eggs and vegetables, they called at the butcher’s and the grocer’s, and then went home themselves. Miss Preen then remembered that she had forgotten one or two things, and must go out again. Nancy remained at home. When Lavinia returned, which was not for an hour, for she had met various friends and stayed to gossip, her sister was in her room. Flore thought Mademoiselle Nancy was setting her drawers to rights: she had heard her opening and shutting them.
Time went on until the afternoon. Just before five o’clock, when Flore came into lay the cloth for dinner, Lavinia, sitting at the window, saw her sister leave the house and cross the yard, a good-sized paper parcel in her hand.
“Why, that is Miss Nancy,” she exclaimed, in much surprise. “Where can she be going to now?”
“Miss Nancy came down the stairs as I was coming in here,” replied Flore. “She said to me that she had just time to run to Madame Carimon’s before dinner.”
“Hardly,” dissented Miss Lavinia. “What can she be going for?”
As five o’clock struck, Flore (always punctual, from self-interest) came in to ask if she should serve the fish; but was told to wait until Miss Nancy returned. When half-past five was at hand, and Nancy had not appeared, Miss Preen ordered the fish in, remarking that Madame Carimon must be keeping her sister to dinner.
Afterwards Miss Preen set out for the casino, expecting she should meet them both there; for Lavinia and Nancy had intended to go. Madame Carimon was not a subscriber, but she sometimes paid her ten sous and went in. It would be quite a pretty sight to-night—a children’s dance. Lavinia soon joined some friends there, but the others did not come.
At eight o’clock she was in the Rue Pomme Cuite, approaching Madame Carimon’s. Pauline, in her short woollen petticoats, and shoeless feet thrust into wooden sabots, was splashing buckets of water before the door to scrub the pavement, and keeping up a screamingchatter with the other servants in the street, who were doing the same, Saturday-night fashion.
Madame Carimon was in the salon, sitting idle in the fading light; her sewing lay on the table. Lavinia’s eyes went round the room, but she saw no one else in it.
“Mary, where is Nancy?” she asked, as Madame Carimon rose to greet her with outstretched hands.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” answered Madame Carimon lightly. “She has not been here. Did you think she had?”
“She dined here—did she not?”
“What, Nancy? Oh no! I and Jules dined alone. He is out now, giving a French lesson. I have not seen Nancy since—let me see—since Thursday, I think; the day before yesterday.”
Lavinia Preen sat down, half-bewildered. She related the history of the evening.
“It is elsewhere that Nancy is gone,” remarked Madame Carimon. “Flore must have misunderstood her.”
Concluding that to be the case, and that Nancy might already be at home, Lavinia returned at once to the Petite Maison Rouge, Mary Carimon bearing her company in the sweet summer twilight. Lavinia opened the door with her latch-key. Flore had departed long before. There were three latch-keys to the house, Nancy possessing one of them.
They looked into every room, and called out “Nancy! Nancy!” But she was not there.
Nancy Preen had gone off with Captain Fennel by the six-o’clock train, en route for Dover, there to be converted into Mrs. Fennel.
And had Nancy foreseen the terrible events and final crime which this most disastrous step would bring about, she might have chosen, rather than take it, to run away to the Protestant cemetery outside the gates of Sainteville, there to lay herself down to die.
“Where can Nancy be?”
Miss Preen spoke these words to Mary Carimon in a sort of flurry. After letting themselves into the house, the Petite Maison Rouge, and calling up and down it in vain for Nancy, the question as to where she could be naturally arose.
“She must be spending the evening with the friends she stayed to dine with,” said Madame Carimon.
“I don’t know where she would be likely to stay. Unless—yes—perhaps at Mrs. Hardy’s.”
“That must be it, Lavinia,” pronounced Madame Carimon.
It was then getting towards nine o’clock. They set out again for Mrs. Hardy’s to escort Nancy home. She lived in the Rue Lothaire; a long street, leading to the railway-station.
Mrs. Hardy was an elderly lady. When near her door they saw her grand-nephew, Charles Palliser, turn out of it. Charley was a good-hearted young fellow, the son of a rich merchant in London. He was staying at Sainteville for the purpose of acquiring the art of speaking French as a native.
“Looking for Miss Ann Preen!” cried he, as theyexplained in a word or two. “No, she is not at our house; has not been there. I saw her going off this evening by the six-o’clock train.”
“Going off by the six-o’clock train!” echoed Miss Lavinia, staring at him. “Why, what do you mean, Mr. Charles? My sister has not gone off by any train.”
“It was in this way,” answered the young man, too polite to flatly contradict a lady. “Mrs. Hardy’s cousin, Louise Soubitez, came to town this morning; she spent the day with us, and after dinner I went to see her off by the train. And there, at the station, was Miss Ann Preen.”
“But not going away by train,” returned Miss Lavinia.
“Why, yes, she was. I watched the train out of the station. She and Louise Soubitez sat in the same compartment.”
A smile stole to Charles Palliser’s face. In truth, he was amused at Miss Lavinia’s consternation. It suddenly struck her that the young man was joking.
“Did you speak to Ann, Mr. Charles?”
“Oh yes; just a few words. There was not time for much conversation; Louise was late.”
Miss Preen felt a little shaken.
“Was Ann alone?”
“No; she was with Captain Fennel.”
And, with that, a suspicion of the truth, and the full horror of it, dawned upon Lavinia Preen. She grasped Madame Carimon’s arm and turned white as death.
“It never can be,” she whispered, her lips trembling: “it never can be! She cannot have—have—run away—with that man!”
Unconsciously perhaps to herself, her eyes were fixed on Charles. He thought the question was put to him, and answered it.
“Well—I—I’m afraid it looks like it, as she seems to have said nothing to you,” he slowly said. “But I give you my word, Miss Preen, that until this moment that aspect of the matter never suggested itself to me. I supposed they were just going up the line together for some purpose or other; though, in fact, I hardly thought about it at all.”
“And perhaps that is all the mystery!” interposed Madame Carimon briskly. “He may have taken Ann to Drecques for a little jaunt, and they will be back again by the last train. It must be almost due, Lavinia.”
With one impulse they turned to the station, which was near at hand. Drecques, a village, was the first place the trains stopped at on the up-line. The passengers were already issuing from the gate. Standing aside until all had passed, and not seeing Nancy anywhere, Charley Palliser looked into the omnibuses. But she was not there.
“They may have intended to come back and missed the train, Miss Preen; it’s very easy to miss a train,” said he in his good nature.
“I think it must be so, Lavinia,” spoke up Madame Carimon. “Any way, we will assume it until we hear to the contrary. And, Charley, we had better not talk of this to-night.”
“Iwon’t,” answered Charley earnestly. “You may be sure of me.”
Unless Captain Fennel and Miss Ann Preen chartered a balloon, there was little probability oftheir reaching Sainteville that evening, for this had been the last train. Lavinia Preen passed a night of discomfort, striving to hope against hope, as the saying runs. Not a very wise saying; it might run better, striving to hope against despair.
When Sunday did not bring back the truants, or any news of them, the three in the secret—Mary Carimon, Lavinia, and Charley Palliser—had little doubt that the disappearance meant an elopement. Monsieur Jules Carimon, not easily understanding such an escapade, so little in accordance with the customs and manners of his own country, said in his wife’s ear he hoped it would turn out that there was a marriage in the case.
Miss Preen received a letter from Dover pretty early in the week, written by Ann. She had been married that day to Captain Fennel.
Altogether, the matter was the most bitter blow ever yet dealt to Lavinia Preen. No living being knew, or ever would know, how cruelly her heart was wrung by it. But, being a kindly woman of good sound sense, she saw that the best must be made of it, not the worst; and this she set herself out to do. She began by hoping that her own instinct, warning her against Captain Fennel, might be a mistaken one, and that he had a good home to offer his wife and would make her happy in it.
She knew no more about him—his family, his fortune, his former life, his antecedents—than she knew of the man in the moon. Major Smith perhaps did; he had been acquainted with him in the past. Nancy’s letter, though written the previous day, had been delivered by the afternoon post. As soon as she