life was as satisfactory as the sky was blue, the young marquis of whitethane thought absently as he sipped his coffee on the small terrace outside jacques' cafe. and the sky above was very blue.
the marquis - actually the son of a duke, with the courtesy title of marquis - was the very portrait and embodiment of an englishman. nothing could disturb his tranquility when he did not wish it disturbed. and he almost never wished it disturbed. of a naturally indolent, though easy disposition, he enjoyed, and sought, the company of those who liked to talk, and who would spare him the burden of speaking much himself.
he also enjoyed the company of those who could tell a story, and never concerned himself as to whether the stories were "true" or not. to exercise your mind to decide whether a story was "true" - what a bother! and how was one to decide in any case?
toquette's assertion to the policeman that she was from "the sovereign kingdom of asmodea", of which the young man had never heard - although he considered himself a dab hand at world traveling - had piqued his curiosity to the extent of offering her his worthy company, which is how it came about that they were now sitting across from each other outside the cafe, sipping jacques' excellent coffee.
"so, mademoiselle, do you have skies as blue as this in the sovereign kingdom of asmodea?"
"but, monsieur, i am no longer in the sovereign kingdom of asmodea. i am sitting here with you on a sidewalk in paris."
"to be sure." the young man smiled with his impenetrable imperturbability. he had already noted this quality of literal-mindedness in his companion, on their walk over from the street where he had encountered her, in front of m. hobart's establishment .
"when i was in asmodea the sun never shone for more than a few hours a day and it rained all the time, " toquette continued. "it has probably not changed all that much since i left."
"it must be mountain country."
"very much so. there is always an excellent view of the sky and clouds."
"and did mademoiselle leave the kingdom to get a better view of the sun?"
"monsieur is pleased to be droll. i left because the kingdom of asmodea, after thousands of years of existence, finally succumbed to the implacable forces of the new mechanized society which is engulfing the earth, and threatens to overwhelm heaven and hell themselves."
the young marquis was delighted by this response, delivered in a french even worse than his own, though with not quite so barbarous an accent. he put down his cup, and closing his eyes, leaned back and pressed his fingertips together in the best english style.
"i can picture it. the ancient castle, the sun glistening off the battlements - i mean, the rain glistening on the battlements - the royal guard, sabers raised to the gray sky, the steeds rearing, ready for one last gallant charge against the black-uniformed hussars of the empire, while the princess - the last representative of a royal line stretching back to the time of cyrus, or at least cleopatra - looks on with her blue eyes raised heavenward."
toquette took a sip of her coffee. "not exactly."
"no?" the marquis smiled encouragingly. "then how exactly?"
"a frock-coated gentleman from the ministry of the interior of the kingdom of hungary arrived in a carriage one morning and announced that the king no longer recognized the sovereignty of asmodea."
"i see. and what was the immediate consequence of this decisive diplomatic intervention?"
"that the post office closed and the nearest post office in crisana assumed the responsibility of delivering the mail."
"and what was the king of asmodea's s reaction to this?"
"the gentleman from the ministry of the interior bought several rounds of drinks for the king and his boon companions at the inn. and the king got up the next morning, perhaps a little later than usual, and went to his blacksmith shop to attend to his business."
"how very heroic. so no one was in any way inconvenienced?"
"only the postmistress, who lost her job."
"ah. and what happened to the poor postmistress?"
"you see her sitting before you."
the marquis was almost nonplussed by this answer. "so, there was nothing to keep you in the former kingdom of asmodea?"
"there was nothing to keep anybody in the former kingdom of asmodea."
"so you went down to the railroad station and took the train to paris?"
"railroad station? the railroad has not yet arrived in asmodea. no, i got a ride to cluj-napoca in the carriage of the minister of the interior."
"cluj-napoca? i must confess i have never been to that thriving metropolis."
"the minister was continuing to stamboul, so i left him at cluj-napoca and decided to try my luck further west."
"it was generous of him to take you as far as he did."
she looked him in the eye. "generosity had nothing to do with it."
"oh?" the marquis answered politely.
"he accommodated me, and i accommodated him."
"to be sure."
"accommodation, monsieur, is what separates us from the beasts, from creatures such as lions and tigers who must be confined in zoos."
"that is very well said."
reader, do not imagine that the young man was so ignorant as to be unaware of toquette's occupation - even if policeman jacques and madame coralie had not called his particular attention to it. however, with his anglo-saxon horror of the unscrubbed, he had no more intention of employing her in her professional capacity than he did of traversing the streets on his hands and knees. but he found her amusing, and preferred that she not leave him.
"would mademoiselle like another coffee?"
"why not? thank you very much."
"it is excellent, is it not?"
"it is all right. i am used to the turkish method. but it will do."
m borin, meanwhile, two tables over, had been listening to their conversation with some bemusement, though horrified at what they were doing to his beloved native tongue. the turkish method! he was not at all sure as to what the young woman was referring.
the turkish method! the young man wondered if, after all, she actually was from some distant land and not just having him on.
"would mademoiselle like a pastry, or a croissant?"
"if you will. monsieur is too kind."
the marquis signalled to jacques, who nodded and glided over to their table.
like all creatures who have spent too much time flying close to the sun, or at mountainous altitudes, the comtesse de colinson loved the sound of the sea, and as the chateau she had repaired to was only a mile from the shore, and as she had few guests, and as those she might expect were, like the baron de b---------, for the most part excruciating bores and preferably avoided, she spent much of her time walking beside the waves and gazing out at the alternately stormy and placid atlantic.
her favorite spot to pursue this timeless occupation was beneath a cliff about two miles north and west of her chateau. the cliff provided protection, if necessary, from sun or rain, and the watery vista, unmarked by rocks even at low tide, provided an excellent view of an edifice whose presence she found both soothing and curiously romantic - an old lighthouse. (but in this part of the world, there would, of course, be no new lighthouses - or anything new.)
in her visits to the beach the comtesse had seen no sign that the lighthouse was occupied. she enjoyed speculating on the possibilities of a romantic narrative regarding its abandonment, and had forborne to enquire as to its actual circumstances, either from servants, tradespeople, or the local gentry, any of whom might have quickly enlightened her.
on the afternoon our narrative recommences (for the comtesse never rose or bestirred herself before noon), she was walking along this favored spot accompanied by a single maid, the same child the reader has already encountered in our desription of the baron de b----------'s visit.
the coachman who had brought them to the spot had been despatched to the woods behind the cliff, on the pretext of catching some small game, or picking mushrooms.
the tide and the waves were high, a light rain fell through a mist, the lighthouse presented a supremely picturesque and forbidding aspect, and the comtesse's curiosity got the upper hand of her.
she turned to the maid, whose name was marie, and asked whether the lighthouse was still maintained?
"oh yes, madame, old mother morneau has kept it these many years, as did her husband before her, in the olden days."
the comtesse did not enquire, what marie might consider to be the "olden days." "i do not believe i have ever seen a light in it."
"has madame ever been here at night? i have not heard that mother morneau is not still there. as for shining a light in the daylight , the old woman prides herself on her keen eyesight, and is not inclined to waste oil or pitch. or anything else, for she is said to be as tightfisted as twenty protestants."
"i see. and she maintains it by herself?"
"mostly. she has a son and a daughter, but they no longer confine themselves to the lighthouse." marie looked out at that edifice, which was now more obscured by a rain which had started falling more heavily. "as i do not think i would have cared to, had i been born in such a place."
the comtesse was amused by marie's manner of speaking, and was mildly curious as to where she had acquired it. the child reminded her of an abbess, or a crypt-keeper, capable of long silences, but of a perfectly modulated flow of talk, once provoked.
"you do not find it romantic?" the comtesse asked her.
"not so much, madame," marie responded. "i would prefer the sight of green open fields, or the spires of ancient cathedrals."
"to each their own." the comtesse smiled. "tell me, i am still looking for good servants. not that those i have, such as yourself, are unsatisfactory. might this son and daughter, having fled their solitary rock, be suited for my employ?"
"i think not, madame. the son is a terrible rascal, reputed to be a smuggler and poacher. not that there is much to smuggle, or to poach, in these parts. and he is said to have broken the heart of every woman for ten miles around."
marie vouchsafed this last information, with the same nonchalance she might have said, "farmer pierre's pig escaped and dug up the neighbors' vegetable patches."
"ah. well, so much for him. and what of the daughter?"
for the first time since she had employed her, the comtesse saw something like a blush under marie's weatherbronzed little face. "that one!" she exclaimed. "of her there is little to be said that can be said."
the comtesse repressed a laugh. the rain had picked up even more, and she wrapped her shawl a little tighter around herself. "come, let us move back a little closer to the cliff."
there were recesses in the cliff which provided almost the shelter of a building. when they had retreated to one the comtesse stood looking out at the sea, apparently lost in thought. marie stayed a little in front of her, as silent as a piece of seaweed.
"do you mind if i ask you a question?" the comtesse finally asked.
marie looked up at her curiously. "madame is a countess. she can ask what she pleases."
"of course. but these are strange times, when up is down, and down is up and then down again. things will never again be as they were, when one is born in one place and stays there until a grave is dug for them." the comtesse stared at marie but she only stared back.
"i have noticed," the comtesse continued, "that you seem to be able to read. i was thus led to wonder - i put it bluntly - have you fallen from a higher position? were you born in your present situation?"
"i was indeed born in my present situation, madame. i have hardly strayed a few miles from the village. in fact i can hardly be said to be from the village, only from the forest."
"but you do know how to read?"
"i do, madame. father paul was kind enough to teach me."
"ah. i take it he is the village priest?"
"he is. i did so well in the sunday school, learning the bible stories and lives of the saints and martyrs, that, being a saint himself, he took it upon himself to teach me to read."
"i see. do you know, i have traveled all over the world, and made the acquaintance of many different, and different types of persons, but i do not know that i have ever met a saint."
"that is unfortunate. perhaps madame met some, but as they did not advertise their sainthood, she was unaware of it."
"perhaps. tell me, do you read anything other than the bible, or the lives of the saints?"
"oh, yes. i am now reading the chronicles of the crusades, and the poems of ronsard."
"good heavens! next you will be spouting corneille and voltaire at me. or aeschylus or shakespeare or addison."
"i have heard that corneille and voltaire are very wicked."
"no doubt." the comtesse looked out at the sky. it was now raining steadily. "we shall have to continue this most interesting conversation sometime. why don't you find michel and have him get the coach ready to return. i will be along in about five minutes."
"madame should have brought an umbrella. is there one in the coach?"
"i do not think so. go. i will follow shortly. i do not mind getting wet."