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   Chapter 18 JEAN JACQUES HAS AN OFFER

The Money Master, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 22525

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


The day after Jean Jacques had got a new lease of life and become his own banker, he treated himself to one of those interludes of pleasure from which he had emerged in the past like a hermit from his cave. He sat on the hill above his lime-kilns, reading the little hand-book of philosophy which had played so big a part in his life. Whatever else had disturbed his mind and diverted him from his course, nothing had weaned him from this obsession. He still interlarded all his conversation with quotations from brilliant poseurs like Chateaubriand and Rochefoucauld, and from missionaries of thought like Hume and Hegel.

His real joy, however, was in withdrawing for what might be called a seance of meditation from the world's business. Some men make celebration in wine, sport and adventure; but Jean Jacques made it in flooding his mind with streams of human thought which often tried to run uphill, which were frequently choked with weeds, but still were like the pool of Siloam to his vain mind. They bathed that vain mind in the illusion that it could see into the secret springs of experience.

So, on as bright a day as ever the New World offered, Jean Jacques sat reciting to himself a spectacular bit of logic from one of his idols, wedged between a piece of Aristotle quartz and Plato marble. The sound of it was good in his ears. He mouthed it as greedily and happily as though he was not sitting on the edge of a volcano instead of the moss-grown limestone on a hill above his own manor.

"The course of events in the life of a man, whatever their gravity or levity, are only to be valued and measured by the value and measure of his own soul. Thus, what in its own intrinsic origin and material should in all outer reason be a tragedy, does not of itself shake the foundations or make a fissure in the superstructure. Again-"

Thus his oracle, but Jean Jacques' voice suddenly died down, for, as he sat there, the face of a woman made a vivid call of recognition. He slowly awakened from his self-hypnotism, to hear a woman speaking to him; to see two dark eyes looking at him from under heavy black brows with bright, intent friendliness.

"They said at the Manor you had come this way, so I thought I'd not have my drive for nothing, and here I am. I wanted to say something to you, M'sieu' Jean Jacques."

It was the widow of Palass Poucette. She looked very fresh and friendly indeed, and she was the very acme of neatness. If she was not handsome, she certainly had a true and sweet comeliness of her own, due to the deep rose-colour of her cheeks, the ivory whiteness round the lustrous brown eyes, the regular shining teeth which showed so much when she smiled, and the look half laughing, half sentimental which dominated all.

Before she had finished speaking Jean Jacques was on his feet with his hat off. Somehow she seemed to be a part of that abstraction, that intoxication, in which he had just been drowning his accumulated anxieties. Not that Virginie Poucette was logical or philosophical, or a child of thought, for she was wholly the opposite-practical, sensuous, emotional, a child of nature and of Eve. But neither was Jean Jacques a real child of thought, though he made unconscious pretence of it. He also was a child of nature-and Adam. He thought he had the courage of his convictions, but it was only the courage of his emotions. His philosophy was but the bent or inclination of a mind with a capacity to feel things rather than to think them. He had feeling, the first essential of the philosopher, but there he stayed, an undeveloped chrysalis.

His look was abstracted still as he took the hand of the widow of Palass Poucette; but he spoke cheerfully. "It is a pleasure, madame, to welcome you among my friends," he said.

He made a little flourish with the book which had so long been his bosom friend, and added: "But I hope you are in no trouble that you come to me-so many come to me in their troubles," he continued with an air of satisfaction.

"Come to you-why, you have enough troubles of your own!" she made answer. "It's because you have your own troubles that I'm here."

"Why you are here," he remarked vaguely.

There was something very direct and childlike in Virginie Poucette. She could not pretend; she wore her heart on her sleeve. She travelled a long distance in a little while.

"I've got no trouble myself," she responded. "But, yes, I have," she added. "I've got one trouble-it's yours. It's that you've been having hard times-the flour-mill, your cousin Auguste Charron, the lawsuits, and all the rest. They say at Vilray that you have all you can do to keep out of the Bankruptcy Court, and that-"

Jean Jacques started, flushed, and seemed about to get angry; but she put things right at once.

"People talk more than they know, but there's always some fire where there's smoke," she hastened to explain. "Besides, your father-in-law babbles more than is good for him or for you. I thought at first that M. Dolores was a first-class kind of man, that he had had hard times too, and I let him come and see me; but I found him out, and that was the end of it, you may be sure. If you like him, I don't want to say anything more, but I'm sure that he's no real friend to you-or to anybody. If that man went to confession-but there, that's not what I've come for. I've come to say to you that I never felt so sorry for anyone in my life as I do for you. I cried all night after your beautiful mill was burned down. You were coming to see me next day-you remember what you said in M. Fille's office-but of course you couldn't. Of course, there was no reason why you should come to see me really-I've 'only got two hundred acres and the house. It's a good house, though-Palass saw to that-and it's insured; but still I know you'd have come just the same if I'd had only two acres. I know. There's hosts of people you've been good to here, and they're sorry for you; and I'm sorrier than any, for I'm alone, and you're alone, too, except for the old Dolores, and he's no good to either of us-mark my words, no good to you! I'm sorry for you, M'sieu' Jean Jacques, and I've come to say that I'm ready to lend you two thousand dollars, if that's any help. I could make it more if I had time; but sometimes money on the spot is worth a lot more than what's just crawling to you-snailing along while you eat your heart out. Two thousand dollars is two thousand dollars-I know what it's worth to me, though it mayn't be much to you; but I didn't earn it. It belonged to a first-class man, and he worked for it, and he died and left it to me. It's not come easy, go easy with me. I like to feel I've got two thousand cash without having to mortgage for it. But it belonged to a number-one man, a man of brains-I've got no brains, only some sense-and I want another good man to use it and make the world easier for himself."

It was a long speech, and she delivered it in little gasps of oratory which were brightened by her wonderfully kind smile and the heart-not to say sentiment-which showed in her face. The sentiment, however, did not prejudice Jean Jacques against her, for he was a sentimentalist himself. His feelings were very quick, and before she had spoken fifty words the underglow of his eyes was flooded by something which might have been mistaken for tears. It was, however, only the moisture of gratitude and the soul's good feeling.

"Well there, well there," he said when she had finished, "I've never had anything like this in my life before. It's the biggest thing in the art of being a neighbour I've ever seen. You've only been in the parish three years, and yet you've shown me a confidence immense, inspiring! It is as the Greek philosopher said, 'To conceive the human mind aright is the greatest gift from the gods.' And to you, who never read a line of philosophy, without doubt, you have done the thing that is greatest. It says, 'I teach neighbourliness and life's exchange.' Madame, your house ought to be called Neighbourhood House. It is the epitome of the spirit, it is the shrine of-"

He was working himself up to a point where he could forget all the things that trouble humanity, in the inebriation of an idealistic soul which had a casing of passion, but the passion of the mind and not of the body; for Jean Jacques had not a sensual drift in his organism. If there had been a sensual drift, probably Carmen would still have been the lady of his manor, and he would still have been a magnate and not a potential bankrupt; for in her way Carmen had been a kind of balance to his judgment in the business of life, in spite of her own material and (at the very last) sensual strain. It was a godsend to Jean Jacques to have such an inspiration as Virginie Poucette had given him. He could not in these days, somehow, get the fires of his soul lighted, as he was wont to do in the old times, and he loved talking-how he loved talking of great things! He was really going hard, galloping strong, when Virginie interrupted him, first by an exclamation, then, as insistently he repeated the words, "It is the epitome of the spirit, the shrine of-"

She put out a hand, interrupting him, and said: "Yes, yes, M'sieu' Jean Jacques, that's as good as Moliere, I s'pose, or the Archbishop at Quebec, but are you going to take it, the two thousand dollars? I made a long speech, I know, but that was to tell you why I come with the money"-she drew out a pocketbook-"with the order on my lawyer to hand the cash over to you. As a woman I had to explain to you, there being lots of ideas about what a woman should do and what she shouldn't do; but there's nothing at all for you to explain, and Mere Langlois and a lot of others would think I'm vain enough now without your compliments. I'm a neighbour if you like, and I offer you a loan. Will you take it-that's all?"

He held out his hand in silence and took the paper from her. Putting his head a little on one side, he read it. At first he seemed hardly to get the formal language clear in his mind; however, or maybe his mind was still away in that abstraction into which he had whisked it when he began his reply to her fine offer; but he read it out aloud, first quickly, then very slowly, and he looked at the signature with a deeply meditative air.

"Virginie Poucette-that's a good name," he remarked; "and also good for two thousand dollars!" He paused to smile contentedly over his own joke. "And good for a great deal more than that too," he added with a nod.

"Yes, ten times as much as that," she responded quickly, her eyes fixed on his face. She scarcely knew herself what she was thinking when she said it; but most people who read this history will think she was hinting that her assets might be united with his, and so enable him to wipe out his liabilities and do a good deal more besides. Yet, how could that be, since Carmen Dolores was still his wife if she was alive; and also they both were Catholics, and Catholics did not recognize divorce!

Truth is, Virginie Poucette's mind did not define her feelings at all clearly, or express exactly what she wanted. Her actions said one thing certainly; but if the question had been put to her, whether she wa

s doing this thing because of a wish to take the place of Carmen Dolores in Jean Jacques' life she would have said no at once. She had not come to that-yet. She was simply moved by a sentiment of pity for Jean Jacques, and as she had no child, or husband, or sister, or brother, or father, or mother, but only relatives who tried to impose upon her, she needed an objective for the emotions of her nature, for the overflow of her unused affection and her unsatisfied maternal spirit. Here, then, was the most obvious opportunity-a man in trouble who had not deserved the bitter bad luck which had come to him. Even old Mere Langlois in the market-place at Vilray had admitted that, and had said the same later on in Virginie's home.

For an instant Jean Jacques was fascinated by the sudden prospect which opened out before him. If he asked her, this woman would probably loan him five thousand dollars-and she had mentioned nothing about security!

"What security do you want?" he asked in a husky voice.

"Security? I don't understand about that," she replied. "I'd not offer you the money if I didn't think you were an honest man, and an honest man would pay me back. A dishonest man wouldn't pay me back, security or no security."

"He'd have to pay you back if the security was right to start with," Jean Jacques insisted. "But you don't want security, because you think I'm an honest man! Well, for sure you're right. I am honest. I never took a cent that wasn't mine; but that's not everything. If you lend you ought to have security. I've lost a good deal from not having enough security at the start. You are willing to lend me money without security-that's enough to make me feel thirty again, and I'm fifty-I'm fifty," he added, as though with an attempt to show her that she could not think of him in any emotional way; though the day when his flour-mill was burned he had felt the touch of her fingers comforting and thrilling.

"You think Jean Jacques Barbille's word as good as his bond?" he continued. "So it is; but I'm going to pull this thing through alone. That's what I said to you and Maitre Fille at his office. I meant it too-help of God, it is the truth!"

He had forgotten that if M. Mornay had not made it easy for him, and had not refrained from insisting on his pound of flesh, he would now be insolvent and with no roof over him. Like many another man Jean Jacques was the occasional slave of formula, and also the victim of phases of his own temperament. In truth he had not realized how big a thing M. Mornay had done for him. He had accepted the chance given him as the tribute to his own courage and enterprise and integrity, and as though it was to the advantage of his greatest creditor to give him another start; though in reality it had made no difference to the Big Financier, who knew his man and, with wide-open eyes, did what he had done.

Virginie was not subtle. She did not understand, was never satisfied with allusions, and she had no gift for catching the drift of things. She could endure no peradventure in her conversation. She wanted plain speaking and to be literally sure.

"Are you going to take it?" she asked abruptly.

He could not bear to be checked in his course. He waved a hand and smiled at her. Then his eyes seemed to travel away into the distance, the look of the dreamer in them; but behind all was that strange, ruddy underglow of revelation which kept emerging from shadows, retreating and emerging, yet always there now, in much or in little, since the burning of the mill.

"I've lent a good deal of money without security in my time," he reflected, "but the only people who ever paid me back were a deaf and dumb man and a flyaway-a woman that was tired of selling herself, and started straight and right with the money I lent her. She had been the wife of a man who studied with me at Laval. She paid me back every penny, too, year by year for five years. The rest I lent money to never paid; but they paid, the dummy and the harlot that was, they paid! But they paid for the rest also! If I had refused these two because of the others, I'd not be fit to visit at Neighbourhood House where Virginie Poucette lives."

He looked closely at the order she had given him again, as though to let it sink in his mind and be registered for ever. "I'm going to do without any further use of your two thousand dollars," he continued cheer fully. "It has done its work. You've lent it to me, I've used it"-he put the hand holding it on his breast-"and I'm paying it back to you, but without interest." He gave the order to her.

"I don't see what you mean," she said helplessly, and she looked at the paper, as though it had undergone some change while it was in his hand.

"That you would lend it me is worth ten times two thousand to me, Virginie Poucette," he explained. "It gives me, not a kick from behind-I've not had much else lately-but it holds a light in front of me. It calls me. It says, 'March on, Jean Jacques-climb the mountain.' It summons me to dispose my forces for the campaign which will restore the Manor Cartier to what it has ever been since the days of the Baron of Beaugard. It quickens the blood at my heart. It restores-"

Virginie would not allow him to go on. "You won't let me help you? Suppose I do lose the money-I didn't earn it; it was earned by Palass Poucette, and he'd understand, if he knew. I can live without the money, if I have to, but you would pay it back, I know. You oughtn't to take any extra risks. If your daughter should come back and not find you here, if she returned to the Manor Cartier, and-"

He made an insistent gesture. "Hush! Be still, my friend-as good a friend as a man could have. If my Zoe came back I'd like to feel-I'd like to feel that I had saved things alone; that no woman's money made me safe. If Zoe or if-"

He was going to say, "If Carmen came back," for his mind was moving in past scenes; but he stopped short and looked around helplessly. Then presently, as though by an effort, he added with a bravura note in his voice:

"The world has been full of trouble for a long time, but there have always been men to say to trouble, 'I am master, I have the mind to get above it all.' Well, I am one of them."

There was no note of vanity or bombast in his voice as he said this, and in his eyes that new underglow deepened and shone. Perhaps in this instant he saw more of his future than he would speak of to anyone on earth. Perhaps prevision was given him, and it was as the Big Financier had said to Maitre Fille, that his philosophy was now, at the last, to be of use to him. When his wife had betrayed him, and his wife and child had left him, he had said, "Moi je suis philosophe!" but he was a man of wealth in those days, and money soothes hurts of that kind in rare degree. Would he still say, whatever was yet to come, that he was a philosopher?

"Well, I've done what I thought would help you, and I can't say more than that," Virginie remarked with a sigh, and there was despondency in her eyes. Her face became flushed, her bosom showed agitation; she looked at him as she had done in Maitre Fille's office, and a wave of feeling passed over him now, as it did then, and he remembered, in response to her look, the thrill of his fingers in her palm. His face now flushed also, and he had an impulse to ask her to sit down beside him. He put it away from him, however, for the present, at any rate-who could tell what to-morrow might bring forth!-and then he held out his hand to her. His voice shook a little when he spoke; but it cleared, and began to ring, before he had said a dozen words.

"I'll never forget what you've said and done this morning, Virginie Poucette," he declared; "and if I break the back of the trouble that's in my way, and come out cock o' the walk again"-the gold Cock of Beaugard in the ruins near and the clarion of the bantam of his barnyard were in his mind and ears-"it'll be partly because of you. I hug that thought to me."

"I could do a good deal more than that," she ventured, with a tremulous voice, and then she took her warm hand from his nervous grasp, and turned sharply into the path which led back towards the Manor. She did not turn around, and she walked quickly away.

There was confusion in her eyes and in her mind. It would take some time to make the confusion into order, and she was now hot, now cold, in all her frame, when at last she climbed into her wagon.

This physical unrest imparted itself to all she did that day. First her horses were driven almost at a gallop; then they were held down to a slow walk; then they were stopped altogether, and she sat in the shade of the trees on the road to her home, pondering-whispering to herself and pondering.

As her horses were at a standstill she saw a wagon approaching. Instantly she touched her pair with the whip, and moved on. Before the approaching wagon came alongside, she knew from the grey and the darkbrown horses who was driving them, and she made a strong effort for composure. She succeeded indifferently, but her friend, Mere Langlois, did not notice this fact as her wagon drew near. There was excitement in Mere Langlois' face.

"There's been a shindy at the 'Red Eagle' tavern," she said. "That father-in-law of M'sieu' Jean Jacques and Rocque Valescure, the landlord, they got at each other's throats. Dolores hit Valescure on the head with a bottle."

"He didn't kill Valescure, did he?"

"Not that-no. But Valescure is hurt bad-as bad. It was six to one and half a dozen to the other-both no good at all. But of course they'll arrest the old man-your great friend! He'll not give you any more fur-robes, that's sure. He got away from the tavern, though, and he's hiding somewhere. M'sieu' Jean Jacques can't protect him now; he isn't what he once was in the parish. He's done for, and old Dolores will have to go to trial. They'll make it hot for him when they catch him. No more fur-robes from your Spanish friend, Virginie! You'll have to look somewhere else for your beaux, though to be sure there are enough that'd be glad to get you with that farm of yours, and your thrifty ways, if you keep your character."

Virginie was quite quiet now. The asperity and suggestiveness of the other's speech produced a cooling effect upon her.

"Better hurry, Mere Langlois, or everybody won't hear your story before sundown. If your throat gets tired, there's Brown's Bronchial Troches-" She pointed to an advertisement on the fence near by. "M. Fille's cook says they cure a rasping throat."

With that shot, Virginie Poucette whipped up her horses and drove on. She did not hear what Mere Langlois called after her, for Mere Langlois had been slow to recover from the unexpected violence dealt by one whom she had always bullied.

"Poor Jean Jacques!" said Virginie Poucette to herself as her horses ate up the ground. "That's another bit of bad luck. He'll not sleep to-night. Ah, the poor Jean Jacques-and all alone-not a hand to hold; no one to rumple that shaggy head of his or pat him on the back! His wife and Ma'm'selle Zoe, they didn't know a good thing when they had it. No, he'll not sleep to-night-ah, my dear Jean Jacques!"

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