In the Wine Cellar

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
In the Wine Cellar (1896)
by H. C. Bunner
2351756In the Wine Cellar1896H. C. Bunner


By H. C. Bunner

THE Count Gregoire de Lafargue was a hermit in Pennsylvania. This statement may appear strange on the face of it, especially when it is further known that the Count belonged to one of the oldest families in France, that he had plenty of money, both of his own and of other people's, that he was an epicure at once dainty and voracious, and as good a judge of wines as ever lived. But only a single word is needed to clear up the apparent mystery. That word, of course, is Panama. The Count was not a conspicuous figure among the many who were disgraced in that famous scandal, but none was more deeply implicated than he. In fact, his criminality was of a complicated nature. He had not only been bribed himself, but he had stolen the bribes of others, blackmailed his fellow-criminals, and then betrayed them for hire. Altogether he was so deep in the mire of iniquity, and had made so many desperate enemies that it was a matter of life or death with him, and he could not too carefully screen himself from the eyes of the world.

He had chosen his place of concealment skilfully, considering that he was a stranger in a strange land. He lived in an old house, several miles from any other habitation, in the hollow of a lofty and lonely range of hills. The country all around him was bleak and poor. It was not a good region for sport, and few strangers came that way. The Count found enough shooting and fishing for himself, but it was poor pickings at the best. His neighbors were few, and lived far away, and they were nearly all of the lowest and most deliberate class of backwoods farmer. Probably none of them knew where Panama was; certainly none of them had ever heard of the great scandal. Certainly few places could have been safer, or more solitary. And the Count's one companion and servitor was a silent, unsociable French peasant, who had excellent reasons of his own for sharing his master's concealment.

The Count was a great, coarse, bull-necked Norman, a strong, healthy brute, utterly devoid of a moral nature. In spite of his gluttony and his passion for wine, he kept himself in good physical condition by violent exercise. He never knew an ache or a pain, and, strange it may seem, he was perfectly contented with his lonely life. When he was not hunting or fishing, he was eating or drinking, or else he was making preparations for eating or drinking. This, indeed, was the keenest joy of his life; a joy that never palled on him; a delight in which he was able to indulge himself without stint. For he had accomplished the almost inconceivably difficult feat of running away from France with his wine-cellar. He had not, it is true, actually taken with him his ancestral vaults; but months before the great scandal was revealed to the world, he had seen how things were going, and had secretly shipped his wonderful collection of rare wines and liquors to this country. He had carried out his scheme with consummate cleverness, doing everything for himself, and trusting no agent. The goods had been shipped in bond to an inland custom-house, and, when he appeared in person, some months later, to withdraw them, he felt that, as he had shrewdly surmised, the proceeding had attracted no particular attention. He had seen much of the world in his time, and had met many Americans, and, having long foreseen the certain necessity for fight, he had adroitly informed himself of many things of which most Frenchmen are ignorant. He found out that the habit of wine-drinking in the United States was practically confined to the larger cities. And in the comparatively small manufacturing town, which he had selected for his port of shipment, the fact that a fool-Frenchman was importing high-grade wines, had caused commiseration rather than surprise. The rest of the business he managed so openly that he excited no suspicion among the Internal Revenue officers; and, as he reached the United States a good six weeks ahead of the scandal, it occurred to no one to connect the costly freight of a rich Frenchman with the flight of a notorious fugitive from justice. His neighbors in the Pennsylvania hills exhibited some curious interest at first, supposing that his barrels contained whiskey; but when they found out that he was only a foreign crank who drank wine, the interest ceased. The few dwellers in that country-side soon became accustomed to the eccentricities of the rich stranger. He took pains to buy produce of them when he could, and to pay for it liberally; and a man who spends money freely has a perfect right to be as crazy as he likes, anywhere in the world.

So the Count was allowed to enjoy his wine-cellar in peace and tranquillity; and he did enjoy it to the full. The re-establishment of his wonderful collection occupied him for several months. Every barrel and case had been transported with the greatest care, and he knew just how long to let each one rest before it was put finally in place in the great cellar which he had prepared for the reception of his treasures. The Count himself, and Emile, his servant, accomplished all this labor between them. Emile was strong, although he was but a child by the side of the gigantic Count; and neither begrudged a whole day's labor to the installation of a single barrel, which they handled as carefully as a mother handles a six-weeks-old baby. The task was a great one, and delicate and difficult, at that; but after a few months it was successfully accomplished, and the Count was able to gloat over a superbly stocked cellar. "Gloat" is the only word that can indicate the way in which the Count looked over his transferred possessions. With new stock and old, the spacious cellar was filled to its utmost capacity; and only a few narrow passage-ways gave access to the great array of barrels and well-filled bins and shelves. He had hired a skilled plumber to fit the whole room out with an ingenious system of hot-air pipes, carefully adapted to the needs of the various kinds of wine. One temperature was maintained in a certain alcove; another in the next; thermometers hung here, there, and everywhere, and to each one was attached a card giving the figure at which the mercury should be kept. Every cask, barrel, and bung; every shelf and bin, bore a neatly framed tablet, whereon was set forth the name and the vintage of the wine, the time of its barreling or bottling, and its condition at each successive testing. Never was a wine-cellar so thoroughly well ordered and so perfectly appointed; never did a wine-cellar receive such constant and conscientious care.

Emile did the hard work of all this, and hard work it was, indeed. Hour after hour, day after day, he scraped along the narrow, dusty, cobweby passage-ways, taking the temperatures, adjusting hot-air valves, and recording on the tablets, according to a complicated system which his master had taught him, the various stages of ripening through which the wine was passing. And never, by any chance, did he satisfy the master. No more exacting bully of a master than Count Gregoire de Lafargue ever lived. He knew well that his poor servant was practically his slave, and he did not hesitate to use and abuse the power which this knowledge gave him. It was well for poor Emile that he had long been used to hard treatment, and had learned a stern lesson of patience and self-repression; for his duties were of a sort to try the soul. The passage-ways were too small to permit his burly employer to move around with comfort, so the Count had the heavy, oaken door of the cellar cut into what is known as a "Dutch door," with a lower and an upper part swinging independently. From the upper edge of the lower half he had a broad shelf run out, and upon this he would rest his folded arms, as he hung over it while superintending the labors of his domestic; while his own huge form nearly filled the narrow corridor that led from the cellar-stairs. In this position the Count had much the aspect of a bartender gazing at his stock from the public side of the bar; and few bartenders would have presented so unattractive a figure.

Poor Emile never tasted a drop from the tiny testing-glasses which he filled at his master's bidding, and bore to the fastidious tyrant who rolled the exquisite liquids over his tongue, and ordered his attendant to inscribe his judgment on each appropriate tablet. Emile was faithful at his work, and, under long tuition, he had become peculiarly skilful; but oaths, curses, and once in a while a blow, were the sole rewards of his diligence.

This treatment did not arise from any special ill-will which the master bore the servant. The Count was naturally rough and overbearing, and he thought much less of his servant than he thought of his dog. The man was to him a mere serf, a chattel, a piece of property. He looked upon him as his forefathers had looked upon servitors from time immemorial. He paid him well, he clothed him well, he fed him well, he gave him plenty of the cheap red wine with which he would not have sullied his aristocratic lips—and what more could the animal want? That was the Count's way of looking at it. Emile had another way; a way of his own.

It was in the latter part of the Spring that Emile began to complain of rheumatic troubles. To these complaints, of course, his employer paid small heed, and whenever Emile showed any incapacity for work he was treated as though he were guilty of voluntary negligence.

However, if the Count had the brutality of the feudal lord, Emile had the stubbornness of the French peasant; and, as his pains increased, he made up his mind that, come what might, he should have medical relief at his master's charge. He had long borne abuse and ill-treatment with a patience that had almost hardened into indifference. He saw nothing out of the common in his lot. That the nobleman should be overbearing; that the serf should be submissive—why, that was the natural way of things. But in this particular instance the Count had overstepped his natural prerogative. A nobleman may be brutal, but a nobleman must not be mean or stingy; and in slighting complaints of his faithful serving-man the Count was, to the latter's mind, guilty of a peculiarly petty and sordid piece of malice; and the victim resented it with all the bitterness of a self-contained nature. The circumstances of the case certainly gave him grounds for his belief; although, as a matter of fact, the Count probably had no special motive in his unkindness. But to the shrewd, ignorant mind of the working-man it seemed otherwise; for he knew something that the Count supposed he did not know.

Like many big, hearty, healthy men, Lafargue made light of sickness and suffering as far as other people were concerned, but he had a great horror and dread of it in his own case. Moreover, he was superstitious. Of general ill-health he had no fear; but his father and his grandfather had both died of injuries received in the hunting-field, and he himself firmly believed that he was destined to meet injury or death in some similar way. In France he had kept a skilful young surgeon on salary as a member of his household. Such an arrangement being impossible in his present quarters, he had made a contract with a physician in the nearest town to come to him instantly and without delay at any moment when his services might be required. To insure strict and quick compliance with this contract, he had paid a large sum in advance, and further agreed to pay a regular annual stipend, in return for which he was to receive whatever attention he should demand. It was the knowledge of this that galled Emile. He had borne much, in his time, but this one injury was one which he could not forgive. To him the doctor under contract was a possession of the Count's, a thing belonging to the household, to be used for household purposes, and as the poor wretch's conception of a right was of the right to be maintained at his master's expense, he conceived himself to be distinctly defrauded in being denied the use of the doctor's services. His master's dogs got medicine when they were ailing, and he could see no difference in their position and his.

The day came, finally, when he amazed the Count by rising in utter rebellion, and flatly refused to perform some tasks to which the Count had assigned him. Lafargue stood speechless for a moment, then he lifted his hand to strike, but the man stood unmoved.

"You may beat me," he said, "but can you beat strength into this arm? Do I not know you and what you are? You would be willing to kill me for less than this. Do you think I would defy you if I could help it?"

The Count's arm dropped to his side. This form of reasoning naturally appealed to him, for it flattered his tyrannical spirit. Even in his anger it was obvious to him that this piece of his household machinery required oiling.

"You wish to go to the doctor?" he said.

Emile laughed bitterly.

"How can I go to the doctor?" he said. "It is ten miles, and more. Give me a letter, and I will go to the cross-roads and send it by the first teamster. The doctor must come to me. If I tried to go to him I should have small use for him when I got there."

The Count sat down to his writing-desk, an article of furniture little used, except for the keeping of his account-books. He looked for a sheet of note-paper, but he could find none. He had no occasion to write letters nowadays, and, ever since his flight from France, he had been wisely careful to give as few specimens of his handwriting as possible. He had assumed a new name, of course, and he had adopted a signature which he had tried to make unlike his usual handwriting, but he still felt the necessity of great caution and, as far as it was practicable, he conducted all his business personally or through his trusty servant.

At length he found a dusty writing-pad, and, tearing off one sheet, wrote the date and this brief message:

"Come to-day."

This he signed; and, after some rummaging in the desk, he found a soiled envelope, which he addressed to the doctor. Then, as he was about to put the letter in the envelope, he hesitated. He had meant to go fishing that day; and he reflected that it would be well for him to be present when the doctor saw Emile. He did not care to trust Emile's report of the interview.

He threw the sheet into the waste-paper basket, without taking the precaution to tear it up. Then he wrote and signed another:

"Come to-morrow." And this one he had half inserted in the envelope when Emile interrupted him to ask for what time the doctor had been summoned. When he heard, he made a protest, and his protest angered the Count. He took the sheet out of the envelope and flung it on the floor. Then he hastily scribbled a third.

"Come day after to-morrow," it said. He was about to slip this into the envelope, when a sudden thought came to him and he stopped.

"To-day," he said, "and to-morrow, and the day after to-morrow. Very well, it shall be as you behave yourself. You know what I have told you to do. Do it and I will let you send that note that calls for the doctor to-day. He will arrive here by this evening. If your work is not done satisfactorily, you will have to wait for the doctor until day after to-morrow. Now go about your business!" And, with a gesture of dismissal, the Count rose and left the room.

If the Count had been a man of either imagination or insight, it might have struck him as a remarkable and suspicious fact that Emile, being thus adjured, did his work fairly well. As it was, he only smiled at his own sagacity, as he thought to himself that he had caught the man shamming, or at least exaggerating the seriousness of his ailment, and, later in the day, in a fit of contemptuous good-nature, he gave him the letter summoning the doctor at once, and saw him set off for the cross- roads.

Then he made his preparations to go fishing; looked over his rod, wound up his reel anew, and selected his flies. And then, reflecting that Emile could not return for several hours, and that he himself would be absent till night-fall, he went down to the wine-cellar to see that everything was in proper shape.

Everything was not in proper shape. The temperature was too low, and he thought that he could detect a slight draught, though he could not find where it came from. He looked at the furnace. It was giving forth much more than the little heat required to keep the cellar in fit condition. He came back and leaned over the lower half of the door, resting his arms on his shelf, and looking perplexedly about the room, wondering where the leak or cold air could be. The ventilators were all closed, and the windows were fixed sashes that did not open. But suddenly he observed that a window was open. The sash directly opposite him had been moved from its place, and rested loosely in the frame. He stared at it in utter astonishment, almost unable to believe the testimony of his eyes. Then, just as he gathered himself to start back for the purpose of opening the door to remedy the mischief, he felt something strike him sharply from behind: heard the creak of breaking wood and the noise made by a heavy piece of board that fell just behind his heels. He tried to turn around, but something gripped his waist with the grip of a vice, and, as he twisted his body to look up, he saw that he was imprisoned by the upper leaf of the door. A semi-circular aperture had been cut nearly out of it, and it had been closed upon him quickly and forcibly, and the bolt had been shot at the same moment.

The Count Gregoire de Lafargue struggled with all his strength, but even his huge frame could do no more than feebly shake the mighty oak door that held him as a man is held in a pillory. He could neither get his chest through one way nor his hips the other; and if he had had an iron girdle around him, he could not have been more firmly bound.

Just as he came to a realization of this fact he saw the loose window- sash opposite him move from the outside. A hand and then an arm appeared, letting it down to the floor. Then two legs arrived in the place of the arm, and a body followed the legs, and then came a face—the face of Emile—bearing upon it an expression such as the Count had never seen before on the features of the poor wretch whom he had so long bullied and maltreated. It was not a look of revenge that Emile wore, nor a look of hatred, nor a look of malice. He simply looked business-like, independent, and at his ease.

For the next two minutes neither of the two men said a word. The one was too utterly dazed to speak; the other had no need to talk. Emile held in his one hand a small hammer, and in the other a wrench. Swiftly, but calmly and steadily, he walked along the narrow passage-way of that wonderful wine-cellar. With swift, dexterous blows, he broke the necks of the priceless bottles of champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, madeira, and all the rest, and with quick twists he opened the spigots of all the casks and barrels. Swiftly and silently he finished his task. A sound of slow and steady dipping succeeded to the first pops and splashes. A delicious odor of old wine filled the cellar.

When all was done Emile advanced just near enough to the Count to be out of the reach of his powerful arm, and laid three pieces of paper on the top of a barrel. They were three sheets from his master's writing pad, folded so that their contents were not seen. Then he produced the envelope, addressed to the doctor, and, selecting one of the three sheets, he inserted it in the wrapper. The sound of the dripping, running wine went on; for he had opened each faucet but a little way.

"To-day, to-morrow, and the day after to-morrow," he said. "I will give this letter to the teamster at the cross-roads. Until the doctor comes you can amuse yourself with guessing which one I shall send him."

He paused to open a faucet a little wider. Then, as the Count burst into a torrent of imprecations, he crawled slowly out of the window. When he was entirely outside, he turned himself around on the ground and, thrusting his face through the casement, looked quietly and observantly through the window for half a minute at the writhing figure of the cursing Count, and then said, politely:


This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse