The Man and the Moment by Elinor Glyn - HTML preview
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HÉRONAC was basking in the sun of an August morning, like some huge sea monster which had clambered upon the wet rocks.
The sea was intensely blue without a ripple upon it, and only the smallest white line marked where its waters caressed the shore.
Nature slumbered in the heat and was silent, and Sabine Howard, the châtelaine of this quaint château, stood looking out of the deep windows in her great sitting-room. It was a wonderful room. She had collected dark panelling and tapestry to hide the grim stone walls, and had managed to buy a splendidly carved and painted roof, while her sense of color had run riot in beautiful silks for curtains. It was a remarkable achievement for one so young, and who had begun so ignorantly. Her mother's family had been decently enough bred, and her maternal grandfather had been a fair artist, and that remarkable American adaptability which she had inherited from her father had helped her in many ways. Her sitting-room at Héronac was, of course, not perfect; and to the trained eye of Henry Fordyce would present many anomalies; but no one could deny that it was a charming apartment, or that it was a glowing frame of rich tints for her youthful freshness.
She had really studied in these years of her residence there, and each month put something worth having into the storehouse of her intelligent mind. She was as immeasurably removed from the Sabine Delburg of convent days as light from darkness, and her companion had often been Monsieur le Curé, an enchanting Jesuit priest, who had the care of the souls of Héronac village. A great cynic, a pure Christian and a man of parts—a distant connection of the original family—Gaston d'Héronac had known the world in his day; and after much sorrow had found a hermitage in his own village—a consolation in the company of this half-French, half-American heiress, who had incorporated herself with the soil. He was now seventy years of age and always a gentleman, with few of the tiresome habits of the old.
What joy he had found in opening the mind of his young Dame d'Héronac!
It was frankly admitted that there were to be no discussions upon religion.
"I am a pagan, cher père," Sabine had said, almost immediately, "leave me!—and let me enjoy your sweet church and your fisherfolks' faith. I will come there every Sunday and say my prayers—mes prières à moi—and then we can discuss philosophy afterwards or—what you will."
And the priest had replied: "Religion is not of dogma. The paganism of Dame Sabine is as good in the sight of le bon Dieu as the belief of Jean Rivée, who knows that his boat was guided into the harbor on the night of the great storm by the Holy Virgin, who posed Herself by the helm. Heavens! yes—it is God who judges—not priests."
It can be easily understood that with two minds of this breadth, Père Anselme and Sabine Howard became real friends.
The Curé, when he read with her the masters of the dix-septième and the dix-huitième had a quaintly humorous expression in his old black eye.
"Not for girls or for priests—but for des gens du monde," he said to her one day, on putting down a volume of Voltaire.
"Of what matter," Sabine had answered. "Since I am not a girl, cher maître, and you were once not a priest, and we are both gens du monde—hein?"
His breeding had been of enormous advantage to him, enabling him to refrain from asking Sabine a single question; but he knew from her ejaculations as time went on that she had passed through some furnace during her eighteenth year, and it had seared her deeply. He even knew more than this; he knew almost as much as Simone, eventually, but it was all locked in his breast and never even alluded to between them.
Sabine was waiting for him at this moment upon this glorious day in August. Père Anselme was going to breakfast with her.
He was announced presently, courtly and spare and distinguished in his thread-bare soutane, and they went in to the breakfast-room, a round chamber in the adjoining tower which had kitchens beneath. The walls were here so thick, that only the sky could be seen from any window except the southeastern one, from which you reviewed the gray slate roofs of the later building within the courtyard, the part which had been always habitable and which contained the salons and the guest chambers, with only an oblique view of the sea. Here, in Héronac's mistress' own apartments, the waves eternally encircled the base, and on rough days rose in great clouds of spray almost to the deep mullions.
"I am having visitors, Père Anselme," Sabine remarked, when Nicholas, her fat butler, was handing the omelette. "Madame Imogen is enchanted," and she smiled at that lady who had been waiting for déjeuner in the room before they had entered.
" Tant mieux!" responded the priest, with his mouth full of egg and mushroom. In his youth, the Héronacs had not imported English nurses, and he ate as his fathers had done before him.
"So much the better. Our lady is too given to solitude, and but for the meteor-like descents of the Princess Torniloni and her tamed father—" (he used the word aprivoisé— "son père aprivoisé"!) "we should here see very little of the outside world. And of what sex, madame, are these new acquaintances, if one may ask?"
"They are men, cher père—bold, bad Englishmen!—think of it! but I can only tell you the name of one of them—the other is problematical—he has merely been spoken of as, 'My friend'—but he is young, I gather, so just the affaire of Mère Imogen!"
"Why, that's likely!" chirped Madame Imogen, with a strong American accent, in her French English. "But I do pine for some gay things down here, don't you, Father?"
Père Anselme was heard to murmur that he found youth enough in his hostess, if you asked him.
"At the same time, we must welcome these Englishmen," he added, "should they be people of cultivation." He had heard that, in their upper classes, the Englishmen of to-day were still the greatest gentlemen left, and he would be pleased to meet examples of them.
"They will arrive at about five o'clock, I suppose," Sabine announced. "Have you seen about their rooms, Mère Imogen? Lord Fordyce is to have the Louis XIV suite, and the friend the one beyond; and we will only let them come into our house if they do not bore us. We shall dine in the salle-à-manger to-night and sit in the big salon."
These rooms were seldom opened, except when Princess Torniloni came to stay and brought her son, Sabine's godchild, who had elaborate nurseries prepared for him. No other visitor had ever crossed the causeway, and Madame Imogen's cute mind was asking itself why clemency had been accorded to these two Britons. The English, as she knew, were not a favored race with her employer.
They had been together for about two years now, she and Sabine—and were excellent friends.
Madame Imogen Aubert had been in great straits in Paris, when Sabine had heard of her through one of her many American acquaintances. Stupid speculation by an overconfident, silly French husband just before his death in Nevada had been the reason. Madame Imogen had the kindest heart and the hardest common sense, and did credit to a distant Scotch descent. She adored Sabine, as indeed she had reason to do, and looked after her house and her servants with a hawk's eye.
After déjeuner was over, the Dame d'Héronac and the Curé crossed the causeway bridge, and beyond the great towered gate entered another at the side, which conducted them into the garden, which sheltered itself behind immensely big walls from the road which curled beyond it, and the sea which bounded it on the northwest. Here, whatever horticultural talent and money could procure had been lavished for four years, and the results were beginning to show. It was a glorious mass of summer flowers; and was the supreme pleasure of Père Anselme. He gardened with the fervor of an enthusiast, and was the joy and terror of the gardeners.
They spent two hours in delightful work, and then the Curé went his way—but just before he left for the hundred yards down the road where his cottage stood, Sabine said to him:
"Regard well Lord Fordyce to-night, mon père. It is possible I may decide to know him very intimately some day—when I am free."
The old priest looked at her questioningly.
"You intend to remove your shackles yourself, then, my child? You will not leave the affair to the good God—no?"
"I think that it will be wiser that I should be free soon, mon père—le bon Dieu helps those who help themselves. Au revoir—and do not be late for the Englishmen."
The priest shrugged his high shoulders, as he walked off.
"The dear child," he said to himself. "She does not know it, but the image of the fierce one has not faded entirely even yet—it is natural, though, that she should think of a mate. I must well examine this Englishman!"
Sabine went back into the walled garden again, and sat down under the shelter of an arbour of green. She wanted to re-read a letter of Henry Fordyce's, which she had received that day by the early and only post.
It was rather a perfect letter for any young woman to have got, and she knew that and valued all its literary and artistic merits.
They had had long and frequent conversations in their last three days at Carlsbad, during which they had grown nearer and still better friends. His gentleness, his courtesy and diffidence were such incense to her self-esteem, considering the position of importance he held in his own country and the great place he seemed to occupy in the Princess' regard. And he was her servant—her slave—and would certainly make the most tender lover—some day!
On their last afternoon, he had taken her hands and kissed them.
"Sabine," he had said, with his voice trembling with emotion. "I have shown you that I can control myself, and have not made any love to you as I have longed to do. Won't you be generous, dearest, and give me some definite hope—some definite promise that, when you are free, you will give yourself to me and will be my wife——?"
And she had answered—with more fervor than she really felt, because she would hide some unaccountable reluctance:
"Yes—I have written to-day to my lawyer, Mr. Parsons—to advise me how to begin to take the necessary steps—and when it all goes through, then—yes—I will marry you."
But she would not let him kiss her, which he showed signs of desiring to do.
"You must wait until I am free, though my marriage is no tie; it has never been one— after the first year. I will tell you the whole story, if you want to hear it—but I wish to forget it all—only it is fair for you to know there is no disgrace connected with it in any way."
"I should not care one atom if there were," Henry said, ecstatically. "You yourself could never have touched any disgrace. Your eyes are as pure as the stars!"
"I was extremely ignorant and foolish, as one is at seventeen. And now I want to make something of life—some great thing—and your goodness and your high and fine ideals will help me."
"My dearest!" he had cried fervently.
Sabine had said to the Princess that night, as they talked in their sitting-room:
"Do you know, Morri, I have almost decided to marry this Englishman—some day. You have often told me I was foolish not to free myself from any bonds, however lightly they held me—and I have never wanted to—but now I do—at once—as soon as possible— before—my husband can suggest being free of me! I have written to Mr. Parsons already—and I suppose it will not take very long. The laws there, I believe, are not so binding as in England—" and then she stopped short.
"The laws—where?" Moravia could not refrain from asking; her curiosity had at last won the day.
"In Scotland, Morri. He was a Scotchman, not an American at all as every one supposes."
The Princess' eyes opened wide—and she had to bite her lips to keep from asking more.
"I have never seen him since the day after we were married—there cannot be any difficulty about getting a divorce—can there?"
"None, I should think," the Princess said shortly, and they kissed one another good-night and each went to her room.
But Moravia sat a long time, after her maid had left her, staring into space. Fate was very cruel and contrary. It gave her everything that most people could want, and refused her the one thing she desired herself.
"He adores Sabine—who will trample on him—she always rules everything—and I would have been his sympathetic companion, and would have let him rule me—!" Then something she could not reconcile in her mind struck her.
If Sabine had never seen her husband since the day after she was married—what had caused her to be so pale and sad and utterly changed when she came to her, Moravia, in Rome—a year or more afterwards, and to have made her break entirely with her uncle and aunt? The secret of her friend's life lay in that year—that year after she herself married and went off with her husband Girolamo to Italy—the year which Sabine had spent in America—alone. But she knew very well that, fond as they were of one another, Sabine would probably never tell her about it. So presently she got into bed and, sighing at the incongruity and inconsiderateness of circumstance, she turned out the light.
Sabine that same night read of further entertainments at Ostende in the New York Herald—and shut her full, firm lips with an ominous force. And so she and Henry had parted at the Carlsbad station next day with the understanding between them that, when Sabine could tell him that she was free, he would be at liberty to press his suit and she would give a favorable answer.
She thought of these past things now for a moment while she re-read Lord Fordyce's letter. It told her, there in her Héronac garden, in a hurried P. S. that a friend had joined him that moment at Havre, and clamored to be taken on the trip, too, claiming an old promise. He was quite a nice young man—but if she did not want any extra person, she was to wire to ----, where they would arrive about eleven o'clock, and there this interloper should be ruthlessly marooned! The post had evidently been going, and the P. S. must have been written in frightful haste after the advent of the friend—for his name was not even given.
Sabine had not wired. She felt a certain sense of relief. It would make someone to talk to Madame Imogen and the Curé—and cause there to be no gêne.
Then her thoughts turned to Henry himself with tender friendship. So dear a companion, and how glad she would be to see him again. The ten days since they had parted at Carlsbad seemed actually long! Surely it was a wise thing to do to start her real life with one whom she could so truly respect; there could be no pitfalls and disappointments! And his great position in England would give scope for her ambition, which never could be satisfied like Moravia's with just social things. She would begin to study English politics and the other great matters which Henry was interested in. He would find that what she had told him at Carlsbad was true, and that, although he was naturally prejudiced against Americans, he would have to admit that she, as his wife, played the part as well, if not better, than one of his own countrywomen could have done. She thrilled a little as the picture came up before her of the large outlook she would have to survey, and the great situation she would have to adorn, but sure of Henry's devoted kindness and gentleness all the time.
Yes—she would certainly marry him, perhaps by next year. Mr. Parsons had written only yesterday, saying he had begun to take steps, as her freedom must come from the side of her husband—who could divorce her for desertion. She could not urge this plea against him, since she had left him of her own free will.
"He will jump at the chance, naturally," she said to herself—"and then, perhaps, he will marry Daisy Van der Horn!"
She was still a very young woman, you see, for all her four years of deep education in the world of books!
She put the letter back in her basket below the flowers she had picked, and prepared to return to the château. To arrange various combinations of color in vases was her peculiar joy—and her flower decorations were her special care. She was just entering the great towered gate of Héronac where resided the concierge, when she heard the whir of a motor approaching in the distance, and she hurriedly slipped inside old Berthe's parlor. She disliked dust and strangers, who, fortunately, very seldom came upon this unbeaten track.
She was watching from the window until they should have passed—it could not be her guests, it was quite an hour too soon, when the motor whizzed round the bend and stopped short at the gate! It was a big open one, and the occupants wore goggles over their eyes; but she recognized Lord Fordyce's figure, as he got out followed by a very tall young man, who called out cheerily:
"Yes—this must be the brigand's stronghold, Henry; let's thunder at the bell."
Then for a moment her knees gave way beneath her, and she sank into Berthe's carved oaken chair. For the voice was the voice of Michael Arranstoun—and when he pulled the goggles off, she could see, as she peered through the window, his sunburnt face and bold blue eyes.