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   Chapter 12 THE MASTER-CARPENTER HAS A PROBLEM

The Money Master, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 16487

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The Clerk of the Court came to his feet with a startled "Merci!" and the master-carpenter fell back with a smothered exclamation. Both men stared confusedly at the woman as she shut the door slowly and, as it might seem, carefully, before she faced them.

"Here I am, George," she said, her face alive with vital adventure.

His face was instantly swept by a storm of feeling for her, his nature responded to the sound of her voice and the passion of her face.

"Carmen-ah!" he said, and took a step forward, then stopped. The hoarse feeling in his voice made her eyes flash gratitude and triumph, and she waited for him to take her in his arms; but she suddenly remembered M. Fille. She turned to him.

"I am sorry to intrude, m'sieu'," she said. "I beg your pardon. They told me at the office of avocat Prideaux that M'sieu' Masson was here. So I came; but be sure I would not interrupt you if there was not cause."

M. Fille came forward and took her hand respectfully. "Madame, it is the first time you have honoured me here. I am very glad to receive you. Monsieur and Mademoiselle Zoe, they are with you? They will also come in perhaps?"

M. Fille was courteous and kind, yet he felt that a duty was devolving on him, imposed by his superior officer, Judge Carcasson, and by his own conscience, and with courage he faced the field of trouble which his simple question opened up. George Masson had but now said there had been nothing more than he himself had seen from the hill behind the Manor; and he had further said, in effect, that all was ended between Carmen Barbille and himself; yet here they were together, when they ought to be a hundred miles apart for many a day. Besides, there was the look in the woman's face, and that intense look also in the face of the master-carpenter! The Clerk of the Court, from sheer habit of his profession, watched human faces as other people watch the weather, or the rise or fall in the price of wheat and potatoes. He was an archaic little official, and apparently quite unsophisticated; yet there was hidden behind his ascetic face a quiet astuteness which would have been a valuable asset to a worldly-minded and ambitious man. Besides, affection sharpens the wits. Through it the hovering, protecting sense becomes instinctive, and prescience takes on uncanny certainty. He had a real and deep affection for Jean Jacques and his Carmen, and a deeper one still for the child Zoe; and the danger to the home at the Manor Cartier now became again as sharp as the knife of the guillotine. His eyes ran from the woman to the man, and back again, and then with great courage he repeated his question:

"Monsieur and mademoiselle, they are well-they are with you, I hope, madame?"

She looked at him in the eyes without flinching, and on the instant she was aware that he knew all, and that there had been talk with George Masson. She knew the little man to be as good as ever can be, but she resented the fact that he knew. It was clear George Masson had told him-else how could he know; unless, perhaps, all the world knew!

"You know well enough that I have come alone, my friend," she answered. "It is no place for Zoe; and it is no place for my husband and him together," she made a motion of the head towards the mastercarpenter. "Santa Maria, you know it very well indeed!"

The Clerk of the Court bowed, but made no reply. What was there to say to a remark like that! It was clear that the problem must be worked out alone between these two people, though he was not quite sure what the problem was. The man had said the thing was over; but the woman had come, and the look of both showed that it was not all over.

What would the man do? What was it the woman wished to do? The master-carpenter had said that Jean Jacques had spared him, and meant to forgive his wife. No doubt he had done so, for Jean Jacques was a man of sentiment and chivalry, and there was no proof that there had been anything more than a few mad caresses between the two misdemeanants; yet here was the woman with the man for whom she had imperilled her future and that of her husband and child!

As though Carmen understood what was going on in his mind, she said: "Since you know everything, you can understand that I want a few words with M'sieu' George here alone."

"Madame, I beg of you," the Clerk of the Court answered instantly, his voice trembling a little-"I beg that you will not be alone with him. As I believe, your husband is willing to let bygones be bygones, and to begin to-morrow as though there was no to-day. In such case you should not see Monsieur Masson here alone. It is bad enough to see him here in the office of the Clerk of the Court, but to see him alone-what would Monsieur Jean Jacques say? Also, outside there in the street, if our neighbours should come to know of the trouble, what would they say? I wish not to be tiresome, but as a friend, a true friend of your whole family, madame-yes, in spite of all, your whole family-I hope you will realize that I must remain here. I owe it to a past made happy by kindness which is to me like life itself. Monsieur Masson, is it not so?" he added, turning to the master-carpenter. More flushed and agitated than when he had faced Jean Jacques in the flume, the master-carpenter said: "If she wants a few words-of farewell-alone with me, she must have it, M'sieu' Fille. The other room-eh? Outside there"-he jerked a finger towards the street-"they won't know that you are not with us; and as for Jean Jacques, isn't it possible for a Clerk of the Court to stretch the truth a little? Isn't the Clerk of the Court a man as well as a mummy? I'd do as much for you, little lawyer, any time. A word to say farewell, you understand!" He looked M. Fille squarely in the eye.

"If I had to answer M. Jean Jacques on such a matter-and so much at stake-"

Masson interrupted. "Well, if you like we'll bind your eyes and put wads in your ears, and you can stay, so that you'll have been in the room all the time, and yet have heard and seen nothing at all. How is that, m'sieu'? It's all right, isn't it?"

M. Fille stood petrified for a moment at the audacity of the proposition. For him, the Clerk of the Court, to be blinded and made ridiculous with wads in his ears-impossible!

"Grace of Heaven, I would prefer to lie!" he answered quickly. "I will go into the next room, but I beg that you be brief, monsieur and madame. You owe it to yourselves and to the situation to be brief, and, if I may say so, you owe it to me. I am not a practised Ananias."

"As well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, m'sieu'," returned Masson.

"I must beg that you will make your farewells of a minute and no more," replied the Clerk of the Court firmly. He took out his watch. "It is six o'clock. I will come again at three minutes past six. That is long enough for any farewell-even on the gallows."

Not daring to look at the face of the woman, he softly disappeared into the other room, and shut the door without a sound.

"Too good for this world," remarked the master-carpenter when the door closed tight. He said it after the disappearing figure and not to Carmen. "I don't suppose he ever kissed a real grown-up woman in his life. It would have shattered his frail little carcass if, if"-he turned to his companion-"if you had kissed him, Carmen. He's made of tissue-paper,-not tissue-and apple-jelly. Yes, but a stiff little backbone, too, or he'd not have faced me down."

Masson talked as though he were trying to gain time. "He said three minutes," she returned with a look of death in her face. As George Masson had talked with the Clerk of the Court, she had come to see, in so far as agitation would permit, that he was not the same as when he left her by the river the evening before.

"There's no time to waste," she continued. "You spoke of farewells-twice you spoke, and three times he spoke of farewells between us. Farewells-farewells-George-!"

With sudden emotion she held out her arms, and her face flushed with passion and longing.

The tempest which shook her shook him also, and he swayed from side to side like an animal uncertain if the moment had come to try its strength with its foe

; and in truth the man was fighting with himself. His moments with Jean Jacques at the flume had expanded him in a curious kind of way. His own arguments while he was fighting for his life had, in a way, convinced himself. She was a rare creature, and she was alluring-more alluring than she had ever been; for a tragic sense had made her thinner, had refined the boldness of her beauty, had given a wonderful lustre to her eyes; and suffering has its own attraction to the degenerate. But he, George Masson, had had a great shock, and he had come out of the jaws of death by the skin of his teeth. It had been the nearest thing he had ever known; for though once he had had a pistol pointed at him, there was the chance that it might miss at half-a-dozen yards, while there was no chance of the lever of the flume going wrong; and water and a mill-wheel were as absolute as the rope of the gallows.

In a sense he had saved himself by his cleverness, but if Jean Jacques had not been just the man he was, he could not have saved himself. It did not occur to him that Jean Jacques had acted weakly. He would not have done what Jean Jacques had done, had Jean Jacques spoiled his home. He would have sprung the lever; but he was not so mean as to despise Jean Jacques because he had foregone his revenge. This master-carpenter had certain gifts, or he could not have caused so much trouble in the world. There is a kind of subtlety necessary to allure or delude even the humblest of women, if she is not naturally bad; and Masson had had experiences with the humblest, and also with those a little higher up. This much had to be said for him, that he did not think Jean Jacques contemptible because he had been merciful, or degraded because he had chosen to forgive his wife.

The sight of the woman, as she stood with arms outstretched, had made his pulses pound in his veins, but the heat was suddenly chilled by the wave of tragedy which had passed over him. When he had climbed out of the flume, and opened the lever for the river to rush through, he had felt as though ice-cold liquid flowed in his veins, not blood; and all day he had been like that. He had moved much as one in a dream, and he had felt for the first time in his life that he was not ready to bluff creation. He had always faced things down, as long as it could be done; and when it could not, he had retreated, with the comment that no man was wise who took gruel when he needn't. He was now face to face with his greatest problem. One thing was clear-they must either part for ever, or go together, and part no more. There could be no half measures. She was a remarkable woman in her way, with a will of her own, and a kind of madness in her; and there could be no backing and filling. They only had three minutes to talk together alone, and two of them were up.

Her arms were held out to him, but he stood still, and before the fire of her eyes his own eyes dropped. "No, not yet!" he exclaimed. "It's been a day-heaven and hell, what a day it's been! He had me like that!" He opened and shut his hand with fierce, spasmodic strength. "And he let me go-oh, let me go like a fox out of a trap! I've had enough for one day-blood of St. Peter, enough, enough!"

The flame of desire in her eyes suddenly turned to fury. "It is farewell, then, that you wish," she said hoarsely. "It is no more and farewell then? You said it to him"-she pointed to the other room-"you said it to Jean Jacques, and you say it to me-to me that's given you all I have. Ah, what a beast you are, George Masson!"

"No, Carmen, you have not given me all. If you had, there would be no farewell. I would stand by you to the end of life, if I had taken all." He lied, but that does not matter here.

"All-all!" she cried. "What is all? Is it but the one thing that the world says must part husband and wife? Caramba! Is that all? I have given everything-I have had your arms around me-"

"Yes, the Clerk of the Court saw that," he interrupted. "He saw from the hill behind the Manor on Tuesday last."

There was a tap at the door of the other room; it slowly opened, and the figure of the Clerk appeared. "Two minutes-just two minutes more, old trump!" said the master-carpenter, stretching out a hand. "One minute will be enough," said Carmen, who was suffering the greatest humiliation which can come to a woman.

The Clerk looked at them both, and he was content. He saw that one minute would certainly be enough. "Very well, monsieur and madame," he said, and closed the door again.

Carmen turned fiercely on the man. "M. Fille saw, did he, from Mont Violet? Well, when I came here I did not care who saw. I only thought of you-that you wanted me, and that I wanted you. What the world thought was nothing, if you were as when we parted last night.... I could not face Jean Jacques' forgiveness. To stay there, feeling that I must be always grateful, that I must be humble, that I must pretend, that I must kiss Jean Jacques, and lie in his arms, and go to mass and to confession, and-"

"There is the child, there is Zoe-"

"Oh, it is you that preaches now-you that tempted me, that said I was wasted at the Manor; that the parish did not understand me; that Jean Jacques did not know a jewel of price when he saw it-little did you think of Zoe then!"

He made a protesting gesture. "Maybe so, Carmen, but I think now before it is too late."

"The child loves her father as she never loved me," she declared. "She is twelve years old. She will soon be old enough to keep house for him, and then to marry-ah, before there is time to think she will marry!"

"It would be better then for you to wait till she marries before-before-"

"Before I go away with you!" She gave a shrill, agonized laugh. "So that is the end of it all! What did you think of my child when you forced your way into my life, when you made me think of you-ah, quel bete-what a coward and beast you are!"

"No, I am not all coward, though I may be a beast," he answered. "I didn't think of your child when I began to talk to you as I did. I was out for all I could get. I was the hunter. And you were the finest woman that I'd ever met and talked with; you-"

"Oh, stop lying!" she cried with a face suddenly grown white and cold.

"It isn't lying. You're the sort of woman to drive men mad. I went mad, and I didn't think of your child. But this morning in the flume I saved my life by thinking of her, and I saved your life, too, maybe, by thinking of her; and I owe her something. I'm going to try to pay back by letting her keep her mother. I never felt towards a woman as I've felt towards you; and that's why I want to make things not so bad for you as they might be."

In her bitter eagerness she took a step nearer to him. "As things might be, if you were the man you were yesterday, willing to throw up everything for me?"

"Like that-if you put it so," he answered.

She walked slowly up to him, looking as though she would plunge a knife into his heart. "I wish Jean Jacques had opened the gates," she said. "It would have saved the hangman trouble."

Then suddenly, and with a cry, she raised her hand and struck him full in the face with her fist. At that instant came a tap at the door of the other room, and the Clerk of the Court appeared. He saw the blow, and drew back with an exclamation.

Carmen turned to him. "Farewell has been said, M'sieu' Fille," she remarked in a voice sombre with rage and despair, and she went to the door leading to the street.

Masson had winced at the blow, but he remained silent. He knew not what to say or do.

M. Fille hastily followed Carmen to the door. "You are going home, dear madame? Permit me to accompany you," he said gently. "I have to do business with Jean Jacques."

A hand upon his chest, she pushed him back. "Where I go I'm going alone," she said. Opening the door she went out, but turning back again she gave George Masson a look that he never forgot. Then the door closed.

"Grace of God, she is not going home!" brokenly murmured the Clerk of the Court.

With a groan the master-carpenter started forward towards the door, but M. Fille stepped between, laid a hand on his arm, and stopped him.

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