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."