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The Crossing By Winston Churchill Characters: 19167

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Madame la Vicomtesse

Hesitating on the step, a lady stood in the vine-covered doorway, a study in black and white in a frame of pink roses. The sash at her waist, the lace mantilla that clung about her throat, the deftly coiled hair with its sheen of the night waters-these in black. The simple gown-a tribute to the art of her countrywomen-in white.

Mrs. Temple had gone forward to meet her, but I stood staring, marvelling, forgetful, in the path. They were talking, they were coming towards me, and I heard Mrs. Temple pronounce my name and hers-Madame de Montméry. I bowed, she courtesied. There was a baffling light in the lady's brown eyes when I dared to glance at them, and a smile playing around her mouth. Was there no word in the two languages to find its way to my lips? Mrs. Temple laid her hand on my arm.

"David is not what one might call a ladies' man, Madame," she said.

The lady laughed.

"Isn't he?" she said.

"I am sure you will frighten him with your wit," answered Mrs. Temple, smiling. "He is worth sparing."

"He is worth frightening, then," said the lady, in exquisite English, and she looked at me again.

"You and David should like each other," said Mrs. Temple; "you are both capable persons, friends of the friendless and towers of strength to the weak."

The lady's face became serious, but still there was the expression I could not make out. In an instant she seemed to have scrutinized me with a precision from which there could be no appeal.

"I seem to know Mr. Ritchie," she said, and added quickly: "Mrs. Clive has talked a great deal about you. She has made you out a very wonderful person."

"My dear," said Mrs. Temple, "the wonderful people of this world are those who find time to comfort and help the unfortunate. That is why you and David are wonderful. No one knows better than I how easy it is to be selfish."

"I have brought you an English novel," said Madame de Montoméry, turning abruptly to Mrs. Temple. "But you must not read it at night. Lindy is not to let you have it until to-morrow."

"There," said Mrs. Temple, gayly, to me, "Madame is not happy unless she is controlling some one, and I am a rebellious subject."

"You have not been taking care of yourself," said Madame. She glanced at me, and bit her lips, as though guessing the emotion which my visit had caused. "Listen," she said, "the vesper bells! You must go into the house, and Mr. Ritchie and I must leave you."

She took Mrs. Temple by the arm and led her, unresisting, along the path. I followed, a thousand thoughts and conjectures spinning in my brain. They reached the bench under the little tree beside the door, and stood talking for a moment of the routine of Mrs. Temple's life. Madame, it seemed, had prescribed a regimen, and meant to have it followed. Suddenly I saw Mrs. Temple take the lady's arm, and sink down upon the bench. Then we were both beside her, bending over her, she sitting upright and smiling at us.

"It is nothing," she said; "I am so easily tired."

Her lips were ashen, and her breath came quickly. Madame acted with that instant promptness which I expected of her.

"You must carry her in, Mr. Ritchie," she said quietly.

"No, it is only momentary, David," said Mrs. Temple. I remember how pitifully frail and light she was as I picked her up and followed Madame through the doorway into the little bedroom. I laid Mrs. Temple on the bed.

"Send Lindy here," said Madame.

Lindy was in the front room with the negress whom Madame had brought with her. They were not talking. I supposed then this was because Lindy did not speak French. I did not know that Madame de Montméry's maid was a mute. Both of them went into the bedroom, and I was left alone. The door and windows were closed, and a green myrtle-berry candle was burning on the table. I looked about me with astonishment. But for the low ceiling and the wide cypress puncheons of the floor the room might have been a budoir in a manor-house. On the slender-legged, polished mahogany table lay books in tasteful bindings; a diamond-paned bookcase stood in the corner; a fauteuil and various other chairs which might have come from the hands of an Adam were ranged about. Tall silver candlesticks graced each end of the little mantel-shelf, and between them were two Lowestoft vases having the Temple coat of arms.

It might have been half an hour that I waited, now pacing the floor, now throwing myself into the arm-chair by the fireplace. Anxiety for Mrs. Temple, problems that lost themselves in a dozen conjectures, all idle-these agitated me almost beyond my power of self-control. Once I felt for the miniature, took it out, and put it back without looking at it. At last I was startled to my feet by the opening of the door, and Madame de Montméry came in. She closed the door softly behind her, with the deft quickness and decision of movement which a sixth sense had told me she possessed, crossed the room swiftly, and stood confronting me.

"She is easy again, now," she said simply. "It is one of her attacks. I wish you might have seen me before you told her what you had to say to her."

"I wish indeed that I had known you were here."

She ignored this, whether intentionally, I know not.

"It is her heart, poor lady! I am afraid she cannot live long." She seated herself in one of the straight chairs. "Sit down, Mr. Ritchie," she said; "I am glad you waited. I wanted to talk with you."

"I thought that you might, Madame la Vicomtesse," I answered.

She made no gesture, either of surprise or displeasure.

"So you knew," she said quietly.

"I knew you the moment you appeared in the doorway," I replied. It was not just what I meant to say.

There flashed over her face that expression of the miniature, the mouth repressing the laughter in the brown eyes.

"Montméry is one of my husband's places," she said. "When Antoinette asked me to come here and watch over Mrs. Temple, I chose the name."

"And Mrs. Temple has never suspected you?"

"I think not. She thinks I came at Mr. Clark's request. And being a lady, she does not ask questions. She accepts me for what I appear to be."

It seemed so strange to me to be talking here in New Orleans, in this little Spanish house, with a French vicomtesse brought up near the court of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette; nay, with Hélène de St. Gré, whose portrait had twice come into my life by a kind of strange fatality (and was at that moment in my pocket), that I could scarce maintain my self-possession in her presence. I had given the portrait, too, attributes and a character, and I found myself watching the lady with a breathless interest lest she should fail in any of these. In the intimacy of the little room I felt as if I had known her always, and again, that she was as distant from me and my life as the court from which she had come. I found myself glancing continually at her face, on which the candle-light shone. The Vicomtesse might have been four and twenty. Save for the soberer gown she wore, she seemed scarce older than the young girl in the miniature who had the presence of a woman of the world. Suddenly I discovered with a flush that she was looking at me intently, without embarrassment, but with an expression that seemed to hint of humor in the situation. To my astonishment, she laughed a little.

"You are a very odd person, Mr. Ritchie," she said. "I have heard so much of you from Mrs. Temple, from Antoinette, that I know something of your strange life. After all," she added with a trace of sadness, "it has been no stranger than my own. First I will answer your questions, and then I shall ask some."

"But I have asked no questions, Madame la Vicomtesse," I said.

"And you are a very simple person, Mr. Ritchie," continued Madame la Vicomtesse, smiling; "it is what I had been led to suppose. A serious person. As the friend of Mr. Nicholas Temple, as the relation and (may I say?) benefactor of this poor lady here, it is fitting that you should know certain things. I will not weary you with the reasons and events which led to my coming from Europe to New Orleans, except to say that I, like all of my class who have escaped the horrors of the Revolution, am a wanderer, and grateful to Monsieur de St. Gré for the shelter he gives me. His letter reached me in England, and I arrived three months ago."

She hesitated-nay, I should rather say paused, for there was little hesitation in what she did. She paused, as though weighing what she was to say next.

"When I came to Les ?les I saw that there was a sorrow weighing upon the family; and it took no great astuteness on my part, Mr. Ritchie, to discover that Antoinette was the cause of it. One has only to see Antoinette to love her. I wondered why she had not married. And yet I saw that there had been an affair. It seemed very strange to me, Mr. Ritchie, for with us, you understand, marriages are arranged. Antoinette really has beauty, she is the daughter of a man of importance in the colony, her strength of character saves her from being listless. I found a girl with originality of expression, with a sense of the fitness of things, devoted to charitable works, who had not taken the veil. That was on her father's account. As you know, they are inseparable. Monsieur Philippe de St. Gré is a remarkable man, with certain vigorous ideas not in accordance with the customs of his neighbors. It was he who first confided in me that he would not force Antoinette to marry; it was she, at length, who told me the st

ory of Nicholas Temple and his mother." She paused again, and, reading between the lines, I perceived that Madame la Vicomtesse had become essential to the household at Les ?les. Philippe de St. Gré was not a man to misplace a confidence.

"It was then that I first heard of you, Mr. Ritchie, and of the part which you played in that affair. It was then I had my first real insight into Antoinette's character. Her affection for Mrs. Temple astonished me, bewildered me. The woman had deceived her and her family, and yet Antoinette gave up her lover because he would not take his mother back. Had Mrs. Temple been willing to return to Les ?les after you had providentially taken her away, they would have received her. Philippe de St. Gré is not a man to listen to criticism. As it was, Antoinette did not rest until she found where Mrs. Temple had hidden herself, and then she came here to her. It is not for us to judge any of them. In sending Antoinette away the poor lady denied herself the only consolation that was left to her. Antoinette understood. Every week she has had news of Mrs. Temple from Mr. Clark. And when I came and learned her trouble, Antoinette begged me to come here and be Mrs. Temple's friend. Mr. Ritchie, she is a very ill woman and a very sad woman,-the saddest woman I have ever known, and I have seen many."

"And Mademoiselle de St. Gré?" I asked.

"Tell me about this man for whom Antoinette has ruined her life," said Madame la Vicomtesse, brusquely. "Is he worth it? No, no man is worth what she has suffered. What has become of him? Where is he? Did you not tell her that you would bring him back?"

"I said that I would bring him back if I could," I answered, "and I meant it, Madame."

Madame la Vicomtesse bit her lip. Had she known me better, she might have smiled. As for me, I was wholly puzzled to account for these fleeting changes in her humor.

"You have taken a great deal upon your shoulders, Mr. Ritchie," she said. "They are from all accounts broad ones. There, I was wrong to be indignant in your presence,-you who seem to have spent your life in trying to get others out of difficulties. Mercy," she said, with a quick gesture at my protest, "there are few men with whom one might talk thus in so short an acquaintance. I love the girl, and I cannot help being angry with Mr. Temple. I suppose there is something to be said on his side. Let us hear it-I dare say he could not have a better advocate," she finished, with an indefinable smile.

I began at the wrong end of my narrative, and it was some time before I had my facts arranged in proper sequence. I could not forget that Madame la Vicomtesse was looking at me fixedly. I reviewed Nick's neglected childhood; painted as well as I might his temperament and character-his generosity and fearlessness, his recklessness and improvidence. His loyalty to those he loved, his detestation of those he hated. I told how, under these conditions, the sins and vagaries of his parents had gone far to wreck his life at the beginning of it. I told how I had found him again with Sevier, how he had come to New Orleans with me the first time, how he had loved Antoinette, and how he had disappeared after the dreadful scene in the garden at Les ?les, how I had not seen him again for five years. Here I hesitated, little knowing how to tell the Vicomtesse of that affair in Louisville. Though I had a sense that I could not keep the truth from so discerning a person, I was startled to find this to be so.

"Yes, yes, I understand," she said quickly. "And in the morning he had flown with that most worthy of my relatives, Auguste de St. Gré."

I looked at her, finding no words to express my astonishment at this perspicacity.

"And now what do you intend to do?" she asked. "Find him in New Orleans, if you can, of course. But how?" She rose quickly, went to the fireplace, and stood for a moment with her back to me. Suddenly she turned. "It ought not to be difficult, after all. Auguste de St. Gré is a fool, and he confirms what you say of the expedition. He is, indeed, a pretty person to choose for an intrigue of this kind. And your cousin,-what shall we call him?"

"To say the least, secrecy is not Nick's forte," I answered, catching her mood.

She was silent awhile.

"It would be a blessing if Monsieur le Baron could hang Auguste privately. As for your cousin, he may be worth saving, after all. I know Monsieur de Carondelet, and he has no patience with conspirators of this sort. I think he would not hesitate to make examples of them. However, we will try to save them."

"We!" I repeated unwittingly.

Madame la Vicomtesse looked at me and laughed outright.

"Yes," she said, "you will do some things, I others. There are the gaming clubs with their ridiculous names, L'Amour, La Mignonne, La Désirée" (she counted them reflectively on her fingers). "Both of our gentlemen might be tempted into one of these. You will drop into them, Mr. Ritchie. Then there is Madame Bouvet's."

"Auguste would scarcely go there," I objected.

"Ah," said Madame la Vicomtesse, "but Madame Bouvet will know the names of some of Auguste's intimates. This Bouvet is evidently a good person, perhaps she will do more for you. I understand that she has a weak spot in her heart for Auguste."

Madame la Vicomtesse turned her back again. Had she heard how Madame Bouvet had begged me to buy the miniature?

"Have you any other suggestions to make?" she said, putting a foot on the fender.

"They have all been yours, so far," I answered.

"And yet you are a man of action, of expedients," she murmured, without turning. "Where are your wits, Mr. Ritchie? Have you any plan?"

"I have been so used to rely on myself, Madame," I replied.

"That you do not like to have your affairs meddled with by a woman," she said, into the fireplace.

"I give you the credit to believe that you are too clever to misunderstand me, Madame," I said. "You must know that your help is most welcome."

At that she swung around and regarded me strangely, mirth lurking in her eyes. She seemed about to retort, and then to conquer the impulse. The effect of this was to make me anything but self-complacent. She sat down in the chair and for a little while she was silent.

"Suppose we do find them," she said suddenly. "What shall we do with them?" She looked up at me questioningly, seriously. "Is it likely that your Mr. Temple will be reconciled with his mother? Is it likely that he is still in love with Antoinette?"

"I think it is likely that he is still in love with Mademoiselle de St. Gré," I answered, "though I have no reason for saying so."

"You are very honest, Mr. Ritchie. We must look at this problem from all sides. If he is not reconciled with his mother, Antoinette will not receive him. And if he is, we have the question to consider whether he is still worthy of her. The agents of Providence must not be heedless," she added with a smile.

"I am sure that Nick would alter his life if it became worth living," I said. "I will answer for that much."

"Then he must be reconciled with his mother," she replied with decision. "Mrs. Temple has suffered enough. And he must be found before he gets sufficiently into the bad graces of the Baron de Carondelet,-these two things are clear." She rose. "Come here to-morrow evening at the same time."

She started quickly for the bedroom door, but something troubled me still.

"Madame-" I said.

"Yes," she answered, turning quickly.

I did not know how to begin. There were many things I wished to say, to know, but she was a woman whose mind seemed to leap the chasms, whose words touched only upon those points which might not be understood. She regarded me with seeming patience.

"I should think that Mrs. Temple might have recognized you," I said, for want of a better opening.

"From the miniature?" she said.

I flushed furiously, and it seemed to burn me through the lining of my pocket.

"That was my salvation," she said. "Mrs. Temple has never seen the miniature. I have heard how you rescued it, Mr. Ritchie," she added, with a curious smile. "Monsieur Philippe de St. Gré told me."

"Then he knew?" I stammered.

She laughed.

"I have told you that you are a very simple person," she said. "Even you are not given to intrigues. I thank you for rescuing me."

I flushed more hotly than before.

"I never expected to see you," I said.

"It must have been a shock," she said.

I was dumb. I had my hand in my coat; I fully intended to give her the miniature. It was my plain duty. And suddenly, overwhelmed, I remembered that it was wrapped in Polly Ann's silk handkerchief.

Madame la Vicomtesse remained for a moment where she was.

"Do not do anything until the morning," she said. "You must go back to your lodgings at once."

"That would be to lose time," I answered.

"You must think of yourself a little," she said. "Do as I say. I have heard that two cases of the yellow fever have broken out this afternoon. And you, who are not used to the climate, must not be out after dark."

"And you?" I said.

"I am used to it," she replied; "I have been here three months. Lest anything should happen, it might be well for you to give me your address."

"I am with Madame Gravois, in the Rue Bienville."

"Madame Gravois, in the Rue Bienville," she repeated. "I shall remember. à demain, Monsieur." She courtesied and went swiftly into Mrs. Temple's room. Seizing my hat, I opened the door and found myself in the dark street.

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