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."