Jacquetta was received by her father and mother with rapture, they were very pleased to see the baron, but the grandchild was the great focus of attention and object of devotion. Old Fairbrother was almost as absurd about the child as was his wife. Mrs Fairbrother had been hurt because her daughter had declined her assistance, but this unexpected visit healed the wound.
How small the old house of her childhood now seemed to Jacquetta, accustomed to the large rooms of the chateau. The house was comfortable, but lacked elegance. The furniture was heavy, the papers tasteless, the ornaments ugly. She noticed how much duller was the sky of England, how much more changeable the climate, how little sun was seen, how depressing was the air.
‘We will run to Cheltenham,’ she said to her husband. ‘I want to let the Misses Woodenhead see my darling.’
So they visited Jacquetta’s old schoolmistresses, and presented the young baron to be worshipped by those old spinsters. Thence they were to go on into Sussex on a visit of a week to Jacquetta’s school friend.
‘Alphonse,’ she said, ‘have you written to your mother and Aunt Celestine? They will be longing to know how Joe is doing—dear little pet! sweet boy! was ever such a cherub seen? And oh! tell them there is a tiny, tiny peak coming through his angelic gum, and that he dribbles a great deal.’
‘I have written to mamma.’
What did you tell her?’
‘I said how happy you were, and how that I proposed on our return from Sussex to your father’s, to go through studies in equitation, and that—’
‘But what did you tell her about the baby?’
‘How cruel of you. I know she will be wanting to hear. Now, Alphonse, I have news for you. My friend in Sussex whom we are going to visit tells me she is engaged to be married, just engaged to—whom do you suppose?’
‘I cannot guess.’
‘To Mr James Asheton.’
‘That is unfortunate,’ said the baron. ‘I have just received tidings that the firm of Asheton has failed.’
‘But my friend has money.’
‘So much the better for Asheton. The poor blond, Miss Graham, will break her heart. She was much attached to him. He has acted unhandsomely by her.’
They paid their visit. On their return to the Fairbrothers, Jacquetta found a letter awaiting her, written in a beautiful foreign hand, like copper plate engraving.
‘Why, actually, Alphonse, a letter from Aunt Celestine!’
The letter was formal as the writing, but gracious. The dowager and aunt were fairly well, and besieged heaven with prayers for the welfare of their dear baby. They had heard nothing about him since he left. Alphonse’s letters were meagre, and scarce alluded to the one subject which most interested them. They thought night and day about their baby, and were anxious for full particulars concerning him. Madame the belle mère was especially alarmed lest exposure to the prevailing fogs which envelop Great Britain should endanger the health of the child.
‘I must write,’ said Jacquetta, ‘for them, this is a great condescension.’
‘Write very little,’ answered the baron. ‘Describe to them fully that charming bonnet you bought at Cheltenham, also the trousseau your friend will have, and say only of baby that he is as well as can be expected, and add—and underline it—that small-pox and scarlet-fever, measles whooping-cough are raging in the neighbourhood, and sweeping away thousands of children.’
‘Why so, Alphonse?’
‘My dear, I wish it. The curé advised it.’
‘The curé! What has he to do with this?’
‘The curé is a very shrewd man.’
‘I cannot see why he should meddle in our affairs.’
‘Then again, Jacquetta. Observe how Aunt Celestine and mamma always call Joseph “Our baby?” When you reply, say “My baby!”
A week later came a very peremptory letter to Alphonse from his mother. She had heard in a roundabout way that there was much sickness in England, that an epidemic of the most dangerous kind had broken out there which was carrying off children by the millions, therefore she insisted on his immediate return to Plaissac.
The baron wrote a letter back full of filial affection and assurances of obedience. He would submit to his mother’s wishes, and return, but he was undergoing a course of studies in equitation, which made it exceedingly inconvenient for him to leave at that time. Moreover, as his wife and child would remain, and he had himself undergone all childish maladies, he did not—if his mother would excuse his saying so—see the necessity of his running away from measles and whooping-cough.
Then came another letter from the baroness, rating him soundly for misunderstanding her. She did not desire his return. She was in alarm about the baby. Joseph Marie Celeste Victor must be placed beyond the reach of danger.
Alphonse replied, thanking his mother for the reprieve. It would have broken his heart to have interrupted his studies in equitation. He was able now to trot, rising in his stirrups with such elasticity and energy, and elevation, that it was possible to place a watch between his saddle and himself and withdraw it with the regularity of machinery, as he made the course round the riding-school, without his even starring the glass of the watch. He had found the greatest difficulty in turning in his toes, but by assiduous attention he hoped in time to surmount this difficulty also. He wore straps to his trousers now, but the professor of equitation had assured him that a master of the art of riding was able to go at a trot, or the canter, or the grand gallop, without his trousers working up his legs. Not a word about the baby!
Jacquetta, against her desire, was sensible of a difference between the manners of her dear parents and of the noblesse of the neighbourhood of Nantes; she knew it, and it troubled her. She was herself a thorough lady in mind and manner, she had been given advantages not possessed by the old people. At Nantes she had associated with the best French families, where traditional culture and refinement had produced an ideal delicacy and beauty of movement, mode of speech, manner, thought. She had been received with great kindness, and had been shown the most delicate and graceful attentions. Her perception of the charm of high culture had been sharpened. Now she was in daily contact with these worthy old people who were by no means polished. The Fairbrothers had acquaintances and friends who were called together to dine with their daughter the baroness and their son the baron. With much difficulty and persuasion Jacquetta had induced her mother to cease from speaking of her husband and her as ‘Lord’ and ‘Lady.’ The old lady could not get hold of the name nearer than Monkeytower. Now the title of baron and baroness was for ever in her mouth. ‘Polly, where are the baron’s boots?’ ‘Charity, bring the baroness her umbrella.’ To her friends there was no cessation of talk about the baron and baroness, and Jacquetta took a loathing to the title. Her mother’s blunders were painfully obvious. Her lack of taste forced itself on her daughter’s notice, though she tried to blind her eyes. She looked timidly at her husband when her mother committed herself egregiously, but the baron seemed unconscious of the mistakes. The sense of humour is not present in the Frenchman, he does not mark the absurd, as does the Englishman.
The friends of the Fairbrothers were more open to criticism than the old parents. Jacquetta saw how common, uncouth, and deficient they were. She could not make the allowances for them which she had been wont to make before she had seen such sweetness of superior culture in France and had learnt to love it. She was getting tired of doing nothing. Time began to hang heavy on her hands. She could not be always knitting socks for baby.
‘Alphonse,’ said she one day, ‘what shall I do? I have made baby a dozen sets of flannels and as many pairs of socks. I am at my wits’ end how to employ myself.’
‘Learn equitation,’ he said. ‘It is a fine study. I can already ride at the canter without my trousers working up to my knees; but I cannot at the trot. It will come in time. I labour very hard. I sigh for the time when I can do without straps.’
‘I know what I will do,’ she said, brightening, ‘I will begin working for the Christmas-tree. We will have another when we get home.’
‘Yes—to Plaissac. It gave such pleasure last year. As the winter was so cold the warm things we made were very acceptable. How thankful the poor were! Here our poor people are overwhelmed with charities, and accept all as a right. It was so pretty there, the way in which the mothers thanked me, and how one brought me eggs, and another sun-dried apricots, and another honey. Alphonse, how is dear Mdlle. Gracieuse? I should like to see her again, even to hear her cracked voice laughing. She took such delight working for the children. I will write to her and propose she should begin again. I will send her money to buy the materials. Alphonse, shall we have the tree this year at the chateau?’
‘If you like, Jacquetta.’
‘Oh, I wonder how my flowers are! We came away just before some Japanese lilies, quite new, came into flower. I gave a great deal for the bulbs. It is said that the lily is the finest ever seen—it is the queen of lilies—and the buds had not burst when we came away. I should like so much to hear what the lily was like. I wonder whether Jean will manage the azaleas right. They must not be kept too dry after they have flowered. I almost wish you had done what your mother said, Alphonse, and run back to Nantes and seen all there, and then you would have been able to tell me. Poor little Mdlle. Gracieuse, I believe she will miss me. What a happy spirit hers is! And Aunt Betsy, she has got to love me, and whenever I went to see her it was quite a festival.’
Jacquetta considered for a while, and then said, ‘After all, how pretty it is at Plaissac. I shall never forget those pink chestnuts behind the chateau in spring, how the nightingales sang in them, and, oh, Alphonse, I never, never saw acacia in flower before, white and delicate pink, such masses—no, ostrich-plumes—of blossom, and the air fragrant with them. It really is very pretty at Plaissac.’
‘I am glad you think that,’ said the baron, smiling with satisfaction. ‘I may be partial, but I think Plaissac is charming. All it has needed hitherto has been sufficient means to keep it up and develop its capabilities, and that was what you had begun upon. In time Plaissac would become a Paradise, far more lovely than Les Hirondelles, of which so much is talked. But then, I may over-estimate it—it is my home.’
‘You are very fond of it?’
‘It is bound up with my childish associations. Besides, I have my pursuits there.’
‘Yes—to be sure,’ said Jacquetta, and became silent and grave. ‘Where are you going now, Alphonse?’ He had taken his hat.
‘I do not know. To saunter about, and look in at shop windows, and smoke a cigar. Perhaps to have a game of billiards. I have no occupation when I am not at my studies of equitation. May I kiss the baby before I go out?’
When she was alone, she sat in a brown study. Really, Alphonse was very good. He had cheerfully thrown up his employment, and cut himself loose from his amusements, from his associates, for her sake, to fulfil her wishes. Was she right in exacting so much of him? Was she not making too long a visit in England, absenting herself too long from her home? Was it wise of her to keep him dangling about the streets of a large town doing nothing but trying to learn to trot without his trousers working up to his knees? He had made a great sacrifice for her sake. He had proved to her the sincerity of his affection. She was startled from her reverie by the voice of her father.
‘Well, Jacket! looking as if in a dream. What is it? Want to be back on the Loire again? I see—torn between two attractions. Now look here, my girl. Your mother and I have no call to remain longer here. I’ve begun to arrange about getting rid of the business. If you know of a snug little box near you——’
‘Oh, papa, papa! The Ashetons have failed and have to leave Nantes. They had a charming little property and maison de campagne——’
‘If it is nice in your eyes, it will do for us. I will talk to Alphonse about it. Here is a letter come for you, foreign post-mark; by the hand, I guess, from Aunt Betsy.’
An hour later the baron came in. He had done his cigar, and there was nothing new in the shop windows, and no one to play with him at the billiard table. He found Jacquetta almost dancing. ‘Alphonse! You must read. From Aunt Betsy. And papa is going to buy the Asheton’s place and come and settle near us. But read, read—no, not the first page, the second. Here—I will read to you. “Wonders will never cease. Would you believe it, Madame la Douairière and Mdlle. de Pleurans came here this after noon in the yellow coach, Jean driving. They actually came to call on me—on me, the old assassin and robber of the dead, the Painaulait. And what do you suppose brought them? THE BOY! It seems they could get no news of baby, and the old ladies were perfectly frantic with anxiety. They had heard nothing about him from the baron, nor from you, but they had received the most alarming reports. So after a great struggle, they humbled themselves to come to Champclair, and behaved most graciously. They asked to see your letters to me, and I showed them, especially where you told me such a lot about the darling, and his tooth, and the dribbling. They perfectly devoured it. I saw them kiss the letter where you said that baby said mum-mum-mum! And when you told how he cooed like a dove, and about that lovely little dimple in his cheek which is like a rose leaf, they fairly cried and threw themselves into each other’s arms and wept like a pair of watering cans. And they wanted to carry off the letters, but I did not think myself quite justified in allowing that. And I do believe they were more rejoiced to hear that the little pearly tooth was through than they would have been to hear of the return of the Comte de Chambord—I mean Henri Cinq. And they said, if I had another letter from you, I was to mind, instantly, and take a venture de rémise, and drive to Plaissac with it, and show it them. And they spoke so beautifully and handsomely of you—”’
Then a gulp came in her throat, she could read no more; but she put her arms round her husband’s neck, and drew his face beside hers, and whispered into his ear, ‘Put on your hat, run to the steamer office, and find out when the Sir Francis Drake starts. I am full of impatience. We must go home.’