"patriarchal! what the - i am not even sure what it means."
"look it up in the fifteenth edition of the encyclopedia brittanica ," drawled rosalind. she stood up, as her turn was next.
"and your author is proust," miss prue told nanette.
"proust. i need help here."
by nanette nanao
illustrations by roy dismas
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
for many years i attempted, not only to erase all traces of my early life from the eyes of the world, but to obliterate them from my own memory. i found that i could best play the part i wished to on the stage of the world, if i believed in it myself, or at least kept nothing on the surface of my consciousness to contradict it.
i was careful not to overplay my part. thus i never styled myself "countess de this" or "baroness de that" or claimed any aristocratic title at all, leaving to the imagination of my dupes - or should i say dupe, as the whole world was my dupe - the impression that i was incognito, or that i disdained to assume my rightful title in a world swarming with parvenus.
as i made no claims, i could never be accused, in the worst of cases, of professing false ones. even better, i was leaving my interlocutors at the mercy of those most qualified and adept at misleading them - namely, themselves.
so it was that at an age when women born into such circumstances as i had been, are either dead or beaten by fate into shapeless shadows hidden in the dust of the world, and even women born with all advantage are beginning to hear the chilly laughter and feel the first soft caress of mistress time - i, the self-named maxine montfort, having defeated my enemies , survived my friends, and secured my allies, was riding with all contentment down the shady main highway of the province of y-------------.
i had spent the afternoon paying a call on the local eminence madame de n------. a terrible bore, but how could i complain? had i not spent my whole life precisely striving toward the goal of associating with such as madame de n-----------? and she had her good points, such as a cook who produced the most excellent little cream cakes, and a somewhat overstuffed divan that i was quite fond of, and relaxed on perhaps a trifle too comfortably. but i had paid her at the whist table, playing my usual perfect game - that is, not too well, and not too badly. and now after such exertions i was in no particular hurry to reach my own little house, and was quite enjoying the familiar ride.
the coachman made a wide, smooth turn at a bend in the road that i had ridden hundreds of times...
i remember that moment almost every day, and in a detail that a skeptic might smile at. i remember not only that the trees were in full leaf, but i can almost count the leaves on each tree, and every vein on every leaf. i remember that two birds flew out of one of the trees, and passed over the horses' heads. one was a dull brown, with gray flecks on its wings, the other quite a bright little fellow, a sort of reddish-orange with a brighter red on its wings.
and when my eye returned from watching their flight, i noticed a small wagon stopped by the side of the road, in the same direction we were traveling. a rustically dressed, slightly hunchbacked man sat in the drivers seat with his back to us. a small black pony with white markings was in the harness, and though stopped, not in any apparent distress.
nor did the wagon itself show any sign of injury. shadows from the tall chestnut trees that lined the road played cross the wagon, the pony and the driver as the treetops moved back and forth in the not unpleasant late summer wind.
two persons stood a little apart from the wagon in animated conversation, which, of course, i could not make out in our immediate approach, an elegant looking young woman of about fifteen years, raven-haired and pale, wearing a full white dress tastefully trimmed in red,
and a round shouldered older man, like the driver with his back to us, and dressed in green clothing which might almost have belonged to a tramp, but also to a well off peasant or even to a country gentleman of a certain type - the type completely indifferent to the opinion of his fellow creatures.
all this of course, however long it takes to write it , or to read it, impressed itself on me in a matter of a few seconds.
despite the lack of any sign of absolute sign of distress in this little party, there was no question of our not stopping. besides such neighborly considerateness being the "custom of the country", my coachman, joseph, could never pass man or beast if it showed the least indication of needing the least assistance in anything at all. like all of my servants, he was what is known as a "good soul" or even a "simple soul", pious, quiet, and forbearing.
i make it a rule to hire only such people, despite the occasional annoyances they provide, because on the whole, though not of course absolutely - because what in this world is absolute? - they really are less inclined to gossip and poke their noses into one's past and present business.
but i digress. joseph stopped my coach with his usual skill. the young woman in the white dress looked up at me with an air worthy of the empress eugenie. the man in the green coat, after a moment's hesitation, turned and looked me in the eye.
since i did not have a mirror in front of my face, i have always assumed that i turned white. otherwise my years of dissimulation - why call it anything else? - stood me in good stead and in tones of perfect good breeding i enquired if the gentleman needed any assistance.
he replied as courteously that he did not, and only his blue eyes indicated both that he knew me and that he was as surprised by our encounter as i was. so it was that i again came face to face with the man who for the first fourteen years of my existence had been my judge, jury, jailer and vengeful god.
on the afternoon of the day that old morneau met his bride, they were declared man and wife by the local priest, with mother jeanne as witness.
the day had turned out unusually bright , and the new couple returned to the lighthouse in the same boat morneau had taken that morning. this time the boy rowed them back without help from his sister, and kept a cheerful and respectable demeanor throughout the trip. he was rewarded with an extra coin from morneau, who was in excellent humor and regarded the sunny day as a good omen.
that night it rained heavily, but with little wind.
the bride kept her part of the bargain. eleven months after the marriage, she delivered a healthy baby boy. and a year after that, an equally healthy baby girl.
two months after that, in the coldest month of a cold and stormy winter, old morneau passed away quietly at his post in the lighthouse.
another seventeen years passed. eventful years, no doubt, in "the world". that is, in the world which writes itself down, which assigns parts of fame, glory and ignominy to certain favored individuals, and which, on a more or less regular schedule, goes to war over words and "principles" (but different ones every time, to be sure). the world which casts statues of those who emerge victorious (but not immortal) in these conflicts and sets them on public streets and squares, and the world which, in its final defiance of pitiless time, even goes to the length of naming the streets and squares themselves after these individuals.
in the lighthouse, and in the village on the shore the lighthouse watched over, life went on without high drama, or much drama at all.
the widow had assumed the duties of lighthouse keeper. it would seem that the bureaucrats in whose charge the maintenance and supervision of the lighthouse fell to, were somewhat overwhelmed by the constant changes brought about by the turbulent politics of the times, and were happy to let the somewhat irregular arrangement continue, rather than go to the trouble of recruiting another keeper.
the widow gave them no cause to regret their action (or lack of action), and no shipwrecks of note occurred on her watch, at least, dear reader, until the time at which our story proper finally commences.
for at last - thank you for your patience - we are prepared to introduce some characters whose station and dignity may more readily command your sympathy and attention.
"and so, my dear comtesse, you are really prepared to end your days here in this backwater? you, who presided so regally over the most sparkling salons of paris and vienna?"
"did i say anything about 'ending my days'? only that i have no plans at this time - not quite the same thing. must you always make everything a drama? good heavens, have we not had quite enough drama?"
the baron de b-------- laughed good-naturedly, although a close observer - if there had been any present - might have sensed that the comtesse's waspish words had stung him a little.
he had to admit, however, to feeling absurdly flattered and gratified that the comtesse seemed to remember him so well after so many years since their last encounter. "indeed," he answered her, "and what better place to take a bit of leave from the great world than here? with its delightful cold and damp."
"are you cold? make yourself a fire. there is wood and kindling beside the fireplace."
the baron rubbed his hands. "you have no servants? i thought i saw some. why, if i recall, one even admitted me into your charming presence."
"they are busy. they are still unpacking. but i suppose if you are truly suffering -"
"no, no. not at all. i would, however, enjoy a nice cup of hot chocolate, if that could be arranged."
"hot chocolate! so you are still accustomed to hot chocolate up here? i did not know the tide of revolution had stopped so short."
"and you had none in vienna? i had not known the tide of revolution had advanced so far."
the comtesse laughed. "very good. enough of this. i can offer you a cup of tea. will that do?"
the comtesse rang a little bell and sank back on her divan. "i am happy to have arranged that to your satisfaction. so tell me, you have in fact led a placid existence in this wilderness? i, for one, would welcome a little placidity."
a wind whipped a light rain across the windows.
the baron discreetly studied his hostess. the comtesse de colinson was no longer young - was in fact approaching the fateful age at which alexander and christ departed the earth - but retained much of the arrogance of a great beauty and a successful adventuress. her fortunes in the past two decades had risen and fallen with a rapidity almost as marked as that of poor europe itself, and she had left in her wake a trail of ruined fortunes, dead lovers, and unsolved mysteries.
there was only one mystery, however, which now excited the curiosity of the baron de b---------, and that was the fate of the colinson fortune. was it to be restored in any form? and would the woman sitting before him in the draughty drawing room of this draughty chalet in the middle of nowhere receive any significant portion of it ? she was, after all, only the dowager countess, having long since left the corpse of the elderly comte bobbing behind her in the waves of revolution and war.
how the baron longed for an opening in the conversation that would allow him to probe, however gently, into this fascinating topic! but his hostess, with that rudeness possessed only by statesmen, children, beggars and the beasts of the jungle, was virtually ignoring him, seeming content to gaze out the window at the rain. was she falling asleep?
he shivered. suddenly the comtesse came to life.
"ah, my friend! i am being a bad hostess!" she was now smiling prettily. "here, let me make a fire for you." she arose, went to the fireplace, and began tossing twigs into it from the small basket beside it.
the baron felt slightly embarrassed. "it amuses you to make your own fire, eh?" he wondered if some joking allusion to the late martyred queen would be in good taste.
"yes, i became quite a dab hand at it." the comtesse threw some more twigs into the fireplace and took a flint from the mantel. "and do you know what else i became adept in?"
"at dressing my own hair."
the baron was shocked, although he had heard rumors of such things. but before he could frame a reply, a very young maidservant, with the complexion of one not long removed from the fields, entered.
"you rang, madame?"
"yes," the comtesse answered her gently. "bring us some tea. there is no hurry. but be sure that it is hot."